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My View: Privatizing forest a bad deal for state

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Is it really wise to forever trade away the recreation, hunting, fishing, wildlife and climate mitigation values of the Elliott State Forest for the $220 million price that the Land Board is considering (barely 4 percent of the annual school budget)?

Earlier this month, the jury in the second trial for the Malheur Refuge occupiers reached guilty verdicts on a majority of counts. The convictions are a small measure of vindication for Oregonians who love public lands and strongly disagree with the warped ideology that the Bundy brothers brought to Oregon.

However, the jury is still out on another public lands battle that has huge implications for Oregon's future — the fate of the Elliott State Forest.

In this case, the jury is the State Land Board made up of Gov. Kate Brown, State Treasurer Tobias Read and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. Read and Richardson have already shown their cards — voting to sell off the Elliott State Forest to private interests at a February meeting of the land board. That decision sent shock waves throughout Oregon and mobilized thousands of citizens who flooded phone lines at the state capital to protest the loss of public lands.

The decision is not yet final and a question remains: Will Read and Richardson respond to public demands, live up to Oregon's green reputation and keep this natural inheritance in public ownership?

The Elliott State Forest is a 93,000-acre landscape of Douglas fir and salmon-filled streams that has been collectively owned by Oregonians since 1930. Of all the state-owned forest land in Oregon, the Elliott is the only one that still contains a substantial stand of old growth (about half the forest is over a century old). Aside from being a place of stunning beauty and natural bounty, the Elliott has been an absolute workhorse for Oregon.

Intensive logging on the forest over the years has funneled almost $300 million to the state's Common School Fund, which provides cash to schools across the state. That same clearcut logging has led to declines for imperiled wildlife like salmon, miles and miles of denuded hillsides, and a decreased ability for the forest to store carbon pollution and aid in the fight against climate change.

The "clearcuts for kids" model of using logging, grazing and mining to fund education may have made sense in 1859, but in 2017 it is as out of date as covered wagons.

As we search for a better solution for the Elliott, it is worth remembering that $300 million — while a lot of money to me and you — is a drop in the bucket when it comes to the state's annual spending on education (proposed at $5.35 billion per year in the governor's current budget).

Is it really wise to forever trade away the recreation, hunting, fishing, wildlife and climate mitigation values of the Elliott State Forest for the $220 million price that the Land Board is considering (barely 4 percent of the annual school budget)?

Gov. Brown has answered that question with an emphatic "no," and is pushing a plan to keep the Elliott in public hands. Her plan is backed by a so-called "trust lands transfer" bill in the Legislature that can help modernize the Common School Fund and end its dependence on clearcut logging. It's time for Treasurer Read and Secretary of State Richardson to join the governor and pull the plug on privatization.

The Elliott can and should continue to be an economic engine for southwest Oregon. There is room for sustainable timber production, but the Elliott's century-old forests should be set aside and protected as a legacy for future generations. Clearcutting, particularly old-growth clearcutting, has no place in the Elliott (or anywhere else in Oregon).

Oregonians treasure our heritage of parks, forests, and other public lands, and we want to see them preserved and passed down for our children and grandchildren to use and enjoy. We need the members of the Oregon Land Board to act on their own values and those of most Oregonians, and show the leadership and creativity needed to save the Elliott State Forest.

Sean Stevens is executive director at Oregon Wild, which works to protect the wildlands, wildlife, and waters that make Oregon

a special place.