Court rules sale of Elliott State Forest parcel illegal

Environmental groups oppose the sale of the Elliott State Forest. The Oregon Court of Appeals has ruled the sale of the East Hakki Ridge tract in the Elliott State Forest to a private timber company was illegal.

The Oregon Department of State Lands erred when it sold a portion of the Elliott State Forest to a private timber company four years ago, according to a ruling Aug. 1 by the Oregon Court of Appeals.

The court’s decision overturns the sale of the 788-acre East Hakki Ridge tract to Seneca Jones Timber Company in 2014, after environmental groups sued to keep the land in public ownership.

Josh Laughlin, executive director of Cascadia Wildlands based in Eugene, Ore., cheered the ruling as a victory for public lands.

“There’s a growing movement afoot in our country to privatize public lands,” Laughlin said. “We really want to buck that movement to keep our public lands public, for the incredible values they offer us.”

The Elliott State Forest in southwest Oregon was created in 1930, with revenue generated from timber sales to support the Common School Fund. In 2012, environmentalists successfully sued to prevent logging old-growth trees that provide nesting habitat for the marbled murrelet, a threatened species of seabird found along the Oregon Coast.

Instead, the State Land Board — composed of the governor, secretary of state and treasurer — opted to sell several parcels of the state forest to private timber companies, including the East Hakki Ridge tract, located just south of the lower Umpqua River.

Cascadia Wildlands, along with the Audubon Society of Portland and the Center for Biological Diversity, sued again to block the sale, citing a law from 1957 that prohibits selling any portion of the Elliott that used to be part of the Siuslaw National Forest.

A circuit court in Eugene initially dismissed the case, though the Court of Appeals has now ruled the sale was, in fact, illegal.

“Privatizing public land would have been a disaster for imperiled salmon and wildlife that rely on clean water and old forests to survive,” said Laughlin, who was also an individual plaintiff in the case.

A spokeswoman for the Department of State Lands said the agency is reviewing the ruling. The State Land Board voted unanimously in May 2017 to scuttle a planned sale of the entire 93,000-acre Elliott State Forest to Lone Rock Resources, of Roseburg, Ore., and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. The 2017 Legislature approved $100 million in state bonds to compensate the Common School Fund.

Todd Payne, CEO of Seneca Jones Timber, said he was disappointed in the court’s ruling, adding the Elliott State Forest was set up to be managed for sustainable timber harvest and provide funding for schools into perpetuity.

“The Elliott has gone from a revenue generating asset worth hundreds of millions of dollars to a liability for the state,” Payne said. “It’s unfortunate, as the financial benefits would have accrued to students of this state. A state that currently ranks 48th in graduation rates.”

Nick Smith, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, said the state is failing in its responsibility to manage the Elliott, provide for schools and economic development in rural Oregon.

“With wildfires devastating our forests, and with toxic smoke threatening the health of our citizens, it would be a grave mistake for the state to continue to replicate the federal government’s failed approach to ‘hands-off’ forest management,” Smith said.

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