Why the Sale of an Oregon State Forest is a Bad Sign For America's Public Lands

Credit: Greg Vaughn / Alamy

Last week the state of Oregon voted to proceed with the sale of Elliott State Forest, the state’s oldest forest, on a single $220 million bid from the Lone Rock Timber Management Company and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. The sale, approved by Oregon Land Board — whose members all received campaign contributions from interests seeking to sell the land — will largely allow the new owners to do what they want with the forest.

Elliott was established in 1930, when the federal government gave 82,000 acres to the state of Oregon to provide a sustainable source of school funding through timber harvest. The land was a boon for years, but lately has lost revenue, which is why it was eventually put up for sale. Conservationists fear that now that Elliott is in private hands, it could lead to a loss of public hunting and fishing access, as well as a possible introduction of steeper access fees — pricing out hunters and fisherman. In addition, the park is home to a wide array of threatened birds, including the Northern spotted owl. (The Oregonian has a great interactive of what’s at stake.)

What’s happening with Elliott is just one of many instances where private and public interests grapple with our nation’s parks and forests as they lose revenue or are under assault from Bundy-like activists. When public lands lose federal protection, they become vulnerable to being sold to private interests as the state’s grapple with funding for them. What we’re seeing now is the natural conclusion of a land losing federal protection: privatization.

We asked Tim Brass, a state policy manager with Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, to put the Elliott State Forest sale into context for us, how often these land sales occur, and why this one is an especially worrying loss of public land.

How often are public parks sold to private interests?

I would say, generally, that state land sales are fairly common business practice, a way to balance the books, and make sure that the lands that the states are holding are profitable. In the last year or so, some of the best examples of proposed land sales that we've seen have been in Wisconsin. It was part of a broader budget reduction that was passed by the state legislature. The legislature mandated that the Department of Natural Resources sell a minimum of 10,000 acres. They did that in a number of phases, starting with the stuff that probably could have been sold anyway, these tiny little parcels of land that were maybe inaccessible or something along the power line. There wasn't really a whole lot of angst over that first round, and then they did the second and third stage, where they really were having to start make some tough decisions, and at that point they were selling lands that were donated to the department for very specific reasons related to conservation and public recreational access. It was unfortunate.

So that’s one example. Another is Utah: If you go to the Utah state land board website, they put these state land auctions up on a regular basis, and you can go back through and they have everything that was sold, what it sold for, and where that parcel was listed for the last few years. They sell lands pretty regularly.

What sort of input do citizens have in these sales?

In the case of Wisconsin, it was a mandate from the legislature. We provided comments and tried to direct some of the sales to lands that didn't have high recreational value, and we were not successful. The Utah State Trust land sale, same thing. There was overwhelming opposition to those sales, and some of them were bordering national parks and others had superhigh value, as well as hunting access. They were actually marketed by the state land board as “Own your own hunting refuge.” Yes, there is some public input opportunity, but from what we've seen it's generally not having a great impact.

What happens to these lands, generally, after they're sold?

I would not paint a broad brush on that one. In some of those Utah examples, they're probably just a vacation house along the edges of a National Park. So I think it kind of depends. A lot of those in the Wisconsin land sales were, like, kind of [in] cabin country, so a good chunk of them probably will be developed.

And what about Elliott? Why is it being sold?

The primary way that the state was generating revenue off of it was through timber sales. Over time, I think that there was a greater amount of public pressure being put on the state to make sure it was managing that land for other species as well, like the spotted owl and marbled murrelet. Some of the environmental groups filed a bunch of lawsuits to try to force them into managing it for those values. They were successful. So the state hasn't been able to continue on with its normal timber harvest operations. I think that the state didn't see a great way out and there was a lot of digging in on both sides, rather than trying to work on a middle ground solution. So the state just kind of threw their hands up and said, “All right, we're going to sell it,” and put the thing out to bid.

What were some of the alternative ideas to selling it off?

The Audubon Society had been trying to generate revenue off of carbon sequestration — people would pay to lock up the carbon stored in the trees and plants. In Washington State, they had a similar problem — but it wasn't due to public pressure, it was due to changing markets. The timber market has been down for quite a while. So what the state has done there is they've just done a transfer in management or a transfer in agency authority. You have the DNR department. It's like a conservancy that is under the Department of Natural Resources, but they’re moving it from the State Land Board over to the other agency, and then the legislature appropriates funds to help go back into the trust fund to ensure there's not a net loss of value.

Why, in general, is it important for sportsmen to pay attention to what happens to the Elliott State Forest?

There's a couple of things. One is the immediate loss in public access is large-scale. Some of these other state land sales that we've seen are just a few thousands acres here and there. This one is a minimum of 40,000 acres that will be directly lost to people have hunted and fished for many years. The other reason why we've been paying attention is this whole public land transfer debate going forward. The writing's on the wall. It's a good example of what you could expect if states were to take over management of some of these lands. This originally was federal land. It was given to the states, and here we are now.