Legislative Letter: Elliott Forest should have followed Hood River model

Last week, Oregonians from all sides erupted over one topic: The Elliott State Forest. It’s an 80,000 acre forested parcel located near the Southern Oregon coast — and it will soon be in private hands when the State Land Board sells it for $220.8 million.

The public uproar was immediate. I’m upset too. I can tell you the displeasure is bipartisan and even the Legislature cannot reverse the decision. The first thing I did when the news broke was consult with several Democratic colleagues, and especially Senate President Peter Courtney. Everybody’s hands are now tied, and it’s a terrible feeling.

But I do want something to emerge from this: Oregon as a whole must rethink its public lands timber management, and what we do in Hood River is the model everyone should look to and adopt.

If not, then as time marches on, there will be countless more privatization deals happening and Elliott will have just been the first seam to burst.

So how did we get here? For years, timber bids were routinely taken in for the Elliott Forest to engage in some regulated cutting. Over time, those deals would get bogged down in courts, and environmental lawyers walked away as the only winners.

Money from those bids previously provided a steady revenue flow right into our classrooms. That was reflected in past K-12 funding packages I have backed. Imagine … class sizes back down to normal — and schools finally bringing back shop classes and music programs. The costly stalling of all these bids is one reason why Oregon’s budget keeps falling short.

The Land Board had a constitutional duty to sell land when no revenue was being generated. To put it plainly — protesters blocked small-scale logging to the point where the state’s only recourse was to privatize an entire forest in one fell swoop.

In Hood River, we do it right.

Since the early 20th century, public forest land in Hood River County has been well-managed on a rotating basis. Our Board of Forestry is extremely sensitive to the needs of all — recreation, conservation, hunting, fishing, etc. Our logging rotation follows a 60-80 year system, and on average brings in about $2 million extra annual revenue. Our wildlife thrives, our jobs continue, and our scenic beauty is off-the-charts.

We have an example of a well-respected, sensitive public lands system that generally everyone likes. That’s good governance. Now contrast that with the Elliott Forest: State-run, politicized, uncompromising, and finally sold to the highest bidder.

We need to face modern realities: School funding has never been the same since the timber industry was crippled, and logging practices have evolved leaps and bounds over past decades. We can either seek a path toward well-regulated, local public land systems like Hood River has, or I fear a future of more land privatization won’t just be more tempting, but inevitable. The Elliott Forest sale needs to be a lesson to us all moving forward.

State Sen. Chuck Thomsen lives in Pine Grove.

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