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The Debate Over the Elliott 

click image Tony Andersen, Oregon Department of Forestry
  • Tony Andersen, Oregon Department of Forestry

The often-complicated debate over public lands plays out in an Oregon forest, which may be up for sale

Stewardship and management of public lands in the United States is an often-tricky and challenging endeavor. In Oregon this is particularly complicated when it comes to a portion of state lands managed by the State Land Board and its administrative arm, the Department of State Lands.

According to the Oregon Constitution, the State Land Board includes the governor, the state treasurer and the secretary of state. Lands under the management of the State Land Board are classified as either trust lands or statutory lands.

When Oregon became a state, the federal government granted lands to the state with the prerequisite that they be used for the benefit of public education. Originally, that included about 3.4 million acres. Today, trust lands constitute approximately 741,000 acres of actual land and 767,000 acres of sub-surface rights. Statutory lands are lands and waterways added to the state land inventory by legislative action.

Management of trust lands in Oregon is grounded in the Oregon Constitution, which dictates that the lands be managed to generate revenues for the Common School Fund (CSF)— established for the benefit of public education. The State Land Board has more latitude with managing statutory lands.

Over the years, the trust lands have generated revenue through land sales, leasing the lands for purposes such as timber harvesting, mining and grazing—as well as public recreational and outdoor uses.

Recent actions by the State Land Board around the Elliott State Forest bring into focus the tension that can come with the management of public lands. Located in southwestern Oregon, the Elliott State Forest, part of the State Land Board's trust lands, consists of about 82,500 acres. For decades, timber harvesting was a big source of revenue from these lands. Over the past decade or so, those revenues have decreased significantly for a variety of reasons. There has been much public debate on this issue, which came to a head last month with the two-to-one vote by the State Land Board to sell off the forest.

Over the past few years the Board has entertained alternatives to the potential sale, but nothing has seemed to catch hold. The governor has indicated she will propose an alternative at the next State Land Board meeting, before a final vote is taken. The pressure is there from both sides—from those who believe it is in the best interests of the State to maintain the forest as a public land, and from those who believe that the State needs to heed its Constitutional mandate and make a maximum profit by selling the land.

Those who promote keeping the forest are focused on the maintenance of public lands as a long-term strategy for maximization of revenue, and look at the sale as being short sighted. Those who advocate the sale point to lost revenue by not selling the land sooner, when it potentially could have netted millions more dollars for the CSF. They also speak to the job creation and other societal benefits, such as benefiting Native American tribes and private conservation efforts. To add more confusion there are those who point to the dwindling revenues of the CSF for public education funding over the past decade or so.

Oregon's situation is not unique, but it does highlight a bigger discussion erupting, particularly in the western states, regarding ownership of public lands. Much of the land in these states is owned by the federal government. Many espouse a belief that this ownership is not for the public good and are promoting instead a transfer of much of the land to state ownership—allowing states to determine the use that is in the public's best interest. To proffer this as a solution to what is seen as governmental heavy-handedness is disingenuous, to say the least. Frankly, the real hope for certain groups is that states would ultimately succumb to pressure and release those lands for private use. To paraphrase the many and varied citizens who favor maintaining public lands, they should be maintained for the use of all and not just the few. If nothing else, all of this highlights the complexities and intricacies involved in the history and future of public lands in the United States.

Judy Stiegler has served as an Oregon State Representative, and on the Bend-LaPine School Board, the Oregon State Board of Education, the Oregon Government Ethics Commission and currently serves on the State Quality Education Commission. She is also a Political Science instructor at OSU-Cascades and Central Oregon Community College.


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