The State Land Board has approved selling the Elliott State Forest to a buyer who will agree to restrictive conditions: pay a fair market price, conserve older trees, protect threatened fish and wildlife, produce logs for local mills, and leave it open to the public.
The board made up of the governor, the secretary of state and the state treasurer unanimously endorsed a resolution Thursday in Salem to go forward with the sale.
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The forest in the Coast Range north of Coos Bay has been running $1 million a year in the red because timber sales have been overturned for failing to protect fish and wildlife habitat.
"This action today comes after years of hard work and thorough consideration of input from a wide spectrum of interested citizens," Department of State Lands director Mary Abrams said in a statement. "We believe the adopted protocol will allow the Land Board to meet their trustee responsibilities to the schoolchildren of Oregon through a transfer that balances economic and conservation values."
A meeting is scheduled for Sept. 17 in Salem to provide potential buyers with specifics on the conditions of the sale.
The 140-square-mile forest was created in 1930 and 90 percent of it generates money for schools. It once produced $8 million a year for the Common School Fund. Attempts to increase logging to produce $13 million annually for schools failed. Lawsuits continually blocked timber sales on the grounds that they failed to maintain habitat for federally protected coho salmon and the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in big old trees.
Prospects for a timber company buying the forest with all the conditions attached seem unlikely. One potential scenario is that a public land trust would buy it and then sell it to the federal government, returning it to the Siuslaw National Forest, from which it originally came.
Selling even younger timber at a profit has become difficult because habitat protections adopted to dismiss a lawsuit from conservation groups impose buffers that cover young and old trees alike, leaving few blocks of timber suitable for sale, said Jim Paul, assistant director of the Department of State Lands.
An appraisal is upcoming, but the forest has been estimated to be worth between $285 million and $400 million, Paul added.
The Department of State Lands has until December 2016 to sell the forest with the conditions, at which point the board would take a new direction, potentially offering it for sale without conditions.
This story has been corrected to drop an extraneous word.