Our Opinion: Forest sale tough but necessary
Last week's vote by the three-member Oregon State Land Board to sell the Elliott State Forest was remarkable in many ways.
First, true drama in a public meeting is rare. Even more usual is when the conflict focuses on principle, rather than politics.
And yet, that's exactly what happened when Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read, a Democrat, shocked political observers by joining Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson in the 2-1 vote in favor of the sale.
Based on her reaction, none was as surprised as Gov. Kate Brown, a fellow Democrat, who had voted to put the land up for bid in 2015, but made an eleventh-hour appeal to change course.
For nearly 90 years, the Department of State Lands has managed the 93,000-acre state forest, located in the Coast Range between Coos Bay and Reedsport, with timber sale profits going into the Common School Fund.
Those sales peaked in the mid-1980s, but fell sharply the following decade. Timber harvests still generated $3 million to $5 million a year for K-12 education up until 2012, when lawsuits over endangered species issues curbed the cut even more. Since then, the sales have barely covered costs, and some years have not even done that.
So in 2015, Brown joined then-Treasurer Ted Wheeler and Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins in voting to sell the land, which includes prime habitat for several protected species, including the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet.
Many hoped that conservation groups might band together and submit an offer, but in the end there was only one bid at a $221 million sale price in December 2016. It was from Roseburg timber company Lone Rock Resources in partnership with the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.
During their campaigns last year (which wrapped up before the bids were due) both Richardson and Read were critical of the proposal to sell the forest. Richardson said the state set the price too low. Read said he would have preferred to keep public ownership of the land.
Neither Richardson nor Read had signaled their intent before last week's vote, but many assumed Read — based on earlier statements and a solid record of supporting environmental causes, would join Brown's effort to maintain state ownership (and stewardship) of the forest land.
Instead, he infuriated many environmentalists by siding with Richardson.
It was Read's first big political test as treasurer and he passed it.
In defending his position, Read noted that as a member of the land board he has a fiduciary obligation to maximize revenue to help public school students. The needs of schools, in this case, outweighed the well-intended arguments of conservationists, who failed to put up a viable counter proposal.
Read is proposing some changes in the terms of the sale to allow the state to buy back some of the most environmentally sensitive areas and give local tribes first right of refusal should Lone Rock sell.
Despite losing the vote, Brown instructed the state lands division, which reports to her, to craft a proposal that would keep the land in public ownership.
If she comes up with something that can garner a second vote when the land board meets in April, that's fine. Otherwise, Read seems to have put the board on the right path to selling most of the land to benefit schools, as required, while protecting some of the most critical parcels for conservation.
No one walked away from last week's meeting happy. But that doesn't mean the contentious decision wasn't the right thing to do — particularly at this time of great financial stress for schools in Oregon.