Can OSU be Trusted with Elliott Forest 

Photo Courtesy of Francis Eatherington

November 29 marks the end of the extended public comment period on the Elliot State Forest proposal by Oregon State University. The proposal is raising concerns from the local group Friends of OSU Old Growth because of lack of transparency, and because of OSU’s clear cutting a significant number of acres in the McDonald-Dunn Research Forest in 2019.   

Elliott Forest has been a part of the 150-year-old Common School Fund  – an act of Congress upon admitting Oregon to the Union which granted nearly 3.4 million acres of the new state’s land “for the use of schools.” In the current year, nearly $55 million was distributed to Oregon Public School from this fund. Now, its decoupling from the fund has been proposed amid the hope that the forest remain publicly-owned and accessible; its management will include habitat conservation as well as logging and carbon credit sales. 

According to Oregon Wild: “Tying logging revenue to school funding was envisioned at a time when old-growth forest and wildlife seemed limitless, but after a century of unsustainable logging practices this program is increasingly in conflict with Oregon’s modern conservation values.” 

The forest, flanked on three sides by managed tree plantation and clear-cuts, is a critical oasis for several “imperiled species such as the marbled murrelet, northern spotted owl, elk, and several kinds of salmon, according to Oregon Wild. In fact, 22% of Oregon wild salmon come from its streams. 

The forest started as 82,000 acres of publicly-owned land and now only 41,000 forested acres remain. It is the largest uncut public forest in the Coastal Range, and has been governed by the Department of State Land, according to The Oregonian. 

2017 nearly landed the Forest on a chopping block as a commodity to be sold to a private logging company. Due to public outcry the deal did not go through. “In 2018, the State Land Board directed the Department of State Lands (DSL) and the Department of Forestry (DoF) at Oregon State University to explore turning the Forest into a research forest. While this proposal will leave room for conservation, several parts of it need reworking,” says Oregon Wild. 

As Director of DSL Vicky Walker said in a YouTube presentationthe forest has completed its contribution to the Common School Fund, but now will contribute to conservation, recreation, education, and the Oregon economy as Elliott State Research Forest. She acknowledges that the future of Elliott Forest has brought out some “passionate conversations,” and expects comments from the public so the elements of the proposal can be changed to a final version due on Dec. 8 for the State Land Board meeting. 

“This final proposal will include the information on financials, the governance structure, and allows for public input and oversight that holds OSU accountable, while allowing for the flexibility we need to conduct research,” said Tom DeLuca, the Dean of the Department of Forestry at OSU, who has only been a part of this two-year process since June 30 – joining OSU from the College of Forestry at University of Montana, Missoula.  

Chuck Willer of Coast Range Association notes that the online research defines the dean’s position as follows: ”The Dean will lead a group of exceptional faculty, staff, students, and external stakeholders to further prominence in education, research, and outreach to drive society to collaboratively use forests to preserve cultural values while expanding local economies, improving life for all.” Sadly, sustainable forest managementand ecology are not mentioned here.

The proposal would place OSU as owner and manager of the forest, which may limit the possibility of public oversight. DSL entrusted the Department of Forestry at OSU to develop the proposal. HoweverFriends of OSU Old Growth call for an independent oversight of the forest management practices along with the inclusion of scientists outside of OSU specializing in Ecosystem Analysis such as Jerry F. Franklin, professor at Washington State University, Seattle. 

The proposal as presented to DSL so far sets aside 66% of the forest as a reserve and 17% and 16% as intensive and extensive management areas respectively. While the west side of the forest would be mostly reserved, the east part would be divided into small sections, so called triads, in which three management techniques are to be applied. Lands along the streams are proposed riparian conservation areas. Each triad will represent some composition of those regions. 

The change in governance of the Forest from Department of State Land to OSU gives the exclusive decision-making rights to the university. That spurred some controversy. 

Doug Pollock in the Friends of OSU Old Growth blog points out that the 46-page report on financial and carbon modeling completed last year was not available on either OSU or DSL websites for weeks. His repeated enquiries resulted in the document being publicized Oct. 25, 2019. 

In a letter dated Dec. 2, 2019, OSU alumni and ecological experts Jerry Franklin and Norm Johnson expressed their concerns regarding unnecessary cutting of the old growth forest stemming from removal of information on this topic from the proposal, rather than addressing itTheir letter notes: “There is no ecological or environmental rationale for harvesting the older, natural forests on the ESF [Elliott State Forest]. These Douglas-fir-dominated forests have long life spans and continue to grow and maintain their integrity for centuries, barring a major wildfire or windstorm.” 

Curiously, nearly all references to cutting older trees have been removed from OSU’s current draft plan for the ESRF. There are no graphs or charts showing how much of each age class would be cut under the various “treatments,” according to Pollock. 

In his analysis of the OSU Proposal,Pollock says, “The description of ‘extensive treatments’ (Page 20), explains that 20 to 80% of the trees will be cut, and this may be applied to sections of forest that are up to ~150 years old.”  

Pollock summarizes his concerns with, We urge the Elliott Advisory Committee, OSU, and the State Land Board to abide by the following principles in the ESRF proposal: 

1) Independent Oversight Focused on Research: Oversight of the Elliott State Research Forest must be free of OSU control (which has deep industry funding and influence). The governing body of the ESRF should be chosen by our elected leaders with a primary focus on the research mission. 

2) Carbon-, Wildlife- and Ecological Research Must Come First: Most of the Coast Range forests have already been decimated by industrial logging. Oregonians overwhelmingly support protection of the unique natural resources of the Elliott. Research should not be focused on the impacts of logging, but rather restoration and enrichment of the natural environment. With industrial forests operating on ~40-year rotations, there is no justification for cutting significantly older trees in the ESRF. 

3) Public Participation and Trust is Key: The Elliott State Forest is a public resource, shared by all Oregonians. If it becomes a “Research Forest” managed by OSU, it is critical that the public be a key partner in the oversight and use of the Forest. The governing body must include public representation, and a process for gathering and responding to public input. 

4) Independent Assessment Provides Accountability: Regardless of the governance structure, there must be a periodic, independent audit of the management of the ESRF. The results of the audit must be made available to the public and used to ensure operations are consistent with the research mission.” 

The Advocate attempted to contact Timber Unity, a group representing loggers, for comment but have not heard back as of press time. 

Readers can visit the DSL site to comment. 

By Joanna Rosińska