A misty morning on the Elliott State Forest (photo by Tim Giraudier).

A Coastal Rainforest Gem Tied to School Funding

The 93,000-acre Elliott State Forest lies within the traditional homelands of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians and other federally recognized western Oregon Tribes.

Located northeast of Coos Bay and just inland from the Pacific Ocean, the Elliott State Forest is a large block of contiguous, publicly owned temperate rainforest in an otherwise fragmented Oregon Coast Range. The Elliott offers native forest habitat and cold waterways that host a myriad of threatened and endangered species, including Oregon Coast coho salmon, marbled murrelet and the northern spotted owl. The old rainforests found here uptake and store massive amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby aiding in mitigating climate change at no cost to society.

Much of the Elliott burned in the settler-started 1868 Coos Bay Fire which burned across nearly 300,000 acres from Scottsburg south to Coos Bay. The forest has grown back naturally since the fire with its native forest nearing 150 years of age today. Residual pockets of old-growth forest that survived the fire, some up to 500 years old, can also be found throughout the forest.

The Elliott became Oregon’s first state forest in 1930. It is named after Francis Elliott, Oregon’s first state forester, who worked with Governor Oswald West to create the forest by trading scattered state “school fund” lands for one large block of land. As the trustee to the school kids of Oregon, the State Land Board (made up of the Governor, Secretary of State and Treasurer) authorized for decades clearcutting the Elliott’s stately forests to support school funding.  

The Elliott State Forest is home to some of the highest carbon sinks in the world (photo by Francis Eatherington).

The Injunction and Oregon’s Ensuing Effort to Privatize Chunks of the Elliott

After decades of unsustainable logging and a refusal by the state of Oregon to change its clearcutting practices, Cascadia Wildlands, Audubon Society of Portland and Center for Biological Diversity brought a federal Endangered Species Act lawsuit in 2012 that resulted in a legal injunction that cancelled dozens of timber sales across the Elliott, Tillamook and Clatsop State Forests that would have impacted the imperiled marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in old coastal rainforests, were ultimately withdrawn.

Old-growth in East Hakki Ridge.

As a result of the injunction and as “test balloons” exploring privatization of the entire forest, the Oregon State Land Board began privatizing chunks of the Elliott State Forest, including the 788-acre East Hakki Ridge parcel sold to Seneca Sawmill. The same plaintiffs brought a lawsuit against the state of Oregon for illegally selling the Elliott State Forest. In 2018, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled that the sale of the East Hakki Ridge parcel was illegal and the privatized East Hakki Ridge forest parcel was reverted back into public ownership.

After the 2012 injunction, another parcel was privatized by the State Land Board — the 355-acre Benson Ridge parcel to Scott Timber (a subsidiary of Roseburg Forest Products). Prior to it being sold, the forest was surveyed for imperiled marbled murrelets by volunteers with Coast Range Forest Watch. Due to the presence of nesting murrelets in the contested parcel and after plans were submitted to clearcut a portion of this forest by the timber operator, Cascadia Wildlands, Audubon Society of Portland and the Center for Biological Diversity brought a federal endangered Species Act case, similar to the 2012 case brought against the state of Oregon. A federal district court judge issued an injunction which halted the logging, and a trial ensued in May 2019. We are currently awaiting a ruling in that case.

State of Oregon’s Unpopular Attempt to Privatize the Entire Elliott State Forest

After the attempted sale of a number of parcels, the State Land Board made a decision to privatize the Elliott State Forest, deciding it was easier to dispose of this asset to a private owner instead of working to find a creative solution to satisfy the school fund mandate and public expectations around forest, watershed and species protection. In 2017, Land Board members Tobias Read and Dennis Richardson voted to privatize the entire Elliott State Forest by selling it to Lone Rock Timber.

Cascadia Wildlands and allies demonstrate against the Elliott clearcutting increase in October 2011 (photo by Trip Jennings).

The decision was met with widespread public opposition, as privatization would certainly have meant installation of gates blocking public access, widespread clearcutting and road building, and degradation of this public asset. A diversity of stakeholders across Oregon came together to oppose privatization, including hunters, anglers, school advocates and conservationists. Read this essay published by a hunter on the Elliott opposed to privatization.

Cascadia Wildlands produced this video, calling on Governor Kate Brown, to help find a plan to keep the Elliott State Forest in public ownership:

Due to immense public pressure, On May 4, 2017 Governor Kate Brown  issued a plan to keep the Elliott State Forest in public ownership which would require $100 million in state bonding revenue to help sever the tie between the School Fund and the Elliott State Forest (the appraised value put on the Elliott was $221 million).

Shortly thereafter on May 9, 2017,  the State Land Board reversed course on the privatization proposal and voted to keep the Elliott public based on Governor Brown’s plan. Then lawmakers followed that up on July 3, 2017 by advancing $100-million in state bonding revenue to help keep the Elliott public

Thereafter, the Land Board issued a call for a new public owner of the Elliott and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry’s proposal for an Elliott State Research Forest has been explored since 2019.

Future of the Elliott

Cascadia Wildlands continues to follow the development of OSU’s College of Forestry’s proposal, and as recent as December 2020 submitted testimony to the Land Board outlining points of support and concern. 

80% of Oregon’s residents and communities draw their drinking water from rivers and streams that begin in a forest; but current logging practices threaten both the quantity and quality of water available.

(West Fork Millicoma River in the Elliott State Forest, photo by Tim Giraudier.)