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Citizen's View: Protect Elliott State Forest

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Samantha Howley is a 2014 graduate of Lakeridge High School and a current junior at the University of Vermont, where she is an environmental science major. She wroite this piece for an environmental policy and activism course.

If a tree falls and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Some of the toughest and most underrated battles fought are with those who cannot scream or cry.

From a young age, I have been speaking up for beings that cannot explain their suffering. My mom often reminisces about when I was drawing pictures of polar bears on melting ice caps and hugging trees. So when a project was assigned in my policy course to research an issue I was passionate about, my mind went straight to the trees.

As a homesick Oregonian living my college life in Vermont, with only sporadic visits back west, I knew I had to fight for Oregon.

You may have never heard of the Elliott State Forest, a 93,000-acre forest tucked away on the western edge of Oregon. If you have had the pleasure of exploring it, then you know that the beautiful coastal rainforest northeast of Coos Bay holds towering old-growth trees and is home to the spectacular marbled murrelet, a Pacific seabird. Elliott State Forest's enormous, mossy trees hide the bird's nests, from which adults travel up to 35 miles a day to the coast to fish for their young. In the forest's 150 miles of streams, wild Coho salmon and steelhead swarm through.

But the fate of the trees, the murrelets, the salmon and the steelhead are still in question.

Many believe that through the Common School Fund, Elliott State Forest is obligated to generate money for public schools through timber harvest. However, this is not the case. Amendments in 1968 to the Oregon Constitution allow the State Land Board discretion to manage the assets from the forest.

Through conservation efforts in the 1990s, the northern spotted owl and the marbled murrelet were declared endangered and threatened species. In 2008, concerns for these species brought the timber industry to a halt, generating no money for the fund. The Land Board now has the final say over the forest's future.

The Land Board, consisting of Gov. Kate Brown, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and Treasurer Tobias Read, voted unanimously on May 9 to keep Elliott State Forest publicly owned, but how the forest will be handled is still uncertain.

Brown has proposed investing $100 million to protect as much of the forest as possible from timber harvests. Another proposal would transfer the land to other public agencies to benefit the forest. Either option would be a strong alternative to other proposals for increased logging and reduced public access.

With the new administration in Washington, D.C., it seems our country is shifting to higher state control of many public lands. Oregon has a reputation for pristine beauty in its public parks, forests and beaches, and we must keep Oregon for the people.

Elliott State Forest became Oregon's first state forest through the efforts of past Gov. Oswald West and Francis Elliott, Oregon's first state forester. It is our responsibility, as Oregonians, to continue to protect our public lands and fight for them.

Oregonians should encourage the Legislature to work with and approve Brown's proposal or transfer lands and invest in our public parks — for the trees, for the birds and for every future generation.

Samantha Howley is a 2014 graduate of Lakeridge High School and a current junior at the University of Vermont, where she is an environmental science major. She wroite this piece for an environmental policy and activism course.