OSU eyes control of the Elliott for conservation, science

Oregon’s premier agricultural research university may soon gain control of a massive state forest to support and facilitate conservation, preservation, recreation and scientific inquiry. 

“Our society is at a crossroads,” Oregon State University College of Forestry Dean Tom DeLucca wrote. “The realities of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pressures for more sustainable forest practices, and increasing worldwide demand for wood products are intersecting and driving debates over public and private forest land management practices.” 

Elliott State Forest may soon be known as the Elliott State Research Forest, as the state government requested OSU’s assistance in developing and maintaining the 80,000-acre holding. 

The sheer expanse of the forest, over five-times the size of all other research forest holdings, makes it a rare and exciting opportunity for scientists and conservationists alike. Not only does it contain an abundant diversity of flora and fauna, it also boasts the only remaining old-growth forest on Oregon public lands. 

“In seeking to create an Elliott State Research Forest, we are reflecting on the immense capacity that exists for forests of Oregon, and beyond, to provide the values we need to sustain ecosystems and economies,” DeLuca explained in the draft proposal. “We believe that carefully crafted research and scientific inquiry in a dedicated area can inform the conservation and management decisions required to protect endangered species and ultimately to their delisting.” 

Conservationists heralded the move towards preservation after the land was nearly sold to logging companies in 2017. Because of pressure from environmentalist organizations there was no deal. Oregon state forests were tied to the Common School Fund and thereby used for their logging revenues, but the state has since considered severing the tie and transferring maintenance responsibility to OSU as a research tract.  

Stakeholders discussed the university’s draft plan Tuesday, the first time those ideas were communicated to the public, with members of the State Land Board, which requested that the university submit such a plan before the end of 2020. 

Included in the draft is the stipulation that 60% of the Eliott would be turned into a preserve for recreation and habitat rehabilitation. 

The plan was not proposed without opposition. The 80,000 acres of old-growth forest present at the Elliott represent big business for logging firms and those industries subsidiary to it. In tough economic times, spurred on even harder by a coronavirus pandemic, that work may represent a chance at prosperity to many. 

Conservationists, however, support what they call pragmatic and important steps toward protecting the Elliott in the draft plan. The plan includes provisions such as lengthening the growth cycle mandated when logging, creating larger streamside buffers, limiting the use of aerosol sprays and cordoning-off a 30,000-acre tract restricted from most logging. 

Environmentalists also note that the draft plan would not be adopted without significant compromise. The plan still allows the logging of some areas of old-growth forest and clear cutting over widespread areas. Critics said there is no distinct provision for the protection of salmon, spotted owls and marbled murrelets, all protected and endangered species.  

But in order for the transfer to complete, the Common School Fund must be repaid the value it will lose. The forest is appraised at about $221 million and the state made a $100 million down payment in 2019. The difference must be accounted for by the time the transfer is made.   

By Gabriel Perry