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Elliott State Research Forest in limbo as OSU steps back

Coast Range fog settles on the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay in 2016.
Jes Burns, OPB/EarthFix
Coast Range fog settles on the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay in 2016.

Oregon State University is stepping back from plans to turn the Elliott State Forest into the country’s largest research forest.

The announcement marks a major roadblock for the 82,000-acre Elliott State Forest. For more than four years, the university has worked with the Oregon Department of State Lands on a proposal that would make the Elliott a “world-renowned” research forest to help better understand how climate change is impacting forests, contributing to sustainable forest products while also allowing public access and timber harvesting.

But OSU President Jayathi Murthy announced this week she would not make a recommendation to OSU’s Board of Trustees to authorize the school’s management of the research forest, stalling the future of the forest that was set to be created at the start of next year.

The announcement is the latest development surrounding a public forest that’s been immersed in controversy for more than a decade. It was put on the market for $221 million in 2016 and was the subject of numerous lawsuits from environmental groups years before that, yet ultimately stabilized with a plan to partner with the state’s largest university. The research forest was also intended to study ways to protect threatened species such as the marbled murrelet, coastal coho salmon and northern spotted owl.

But in a letter to the Oregon State Land Board obtained by OPB, Murthy said the latest plan to use the forest as a research tool falls short of the university’s initial vision. She said her decision was driven by several factors, particularly opposition expressed by the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians.

The Elliott State Forest is located northeast of Coos Bay on the tribes’ traditional lands. The tribes have long supported plans to turn the area into a research forest. But Murthy said they recently “expressed significant concerns” that the proposed management plan doesn’t give the tribes a meaningful role in forest stewardship, and that it doesn’t adequately incorporate indigenous cultural knowledge or practices.

Murthy also expressed concern about how much timber the state would harvest from the research forest. Citing an email exchange between the Department of Lands and the State Land Board, Murthy said the state plans set a specific amount of timber that could be harvested from the forest every year, with minimal year-to-year variation. She said such a plan would harm the forest’s health.

“Further, the proposed research forest was predicated on the realization that forest management would be modified over time as knowledge is gained and understanding is built through research, observation, and collaboration,” Murthy wrote.

Murthy also opposed discussions among state officials to use the forest to sell carbon offsets. Because the forest sequesters carbon, the state could sell carbon credits to businesses and agencies to compensate for their own carbon emissions. If part of the forest is committed to carbon credits, then it needs to be managed in a specific way for several decades. Murthy said that could impede researchers’ work on sustainable management practices.

Even so, Murthy said the university is still committed to working with the state on recalibrating the plan “in a manner that fulfills the vision,” she wrote.

Oregon Department of State Lands Director Vicki Walker said she was disappointed.

“Let me be abundantly clear: The state remains deeply committed to the vision of an Elliott State Research Forest,” Walker wrote in a statement, adding that the department will continue working with the state land board and tribes on establishing the research forest.

It’s unclear if the department will continue working with OSU on the Elliott State Research Forest, or if it will find another organization that can do forest management and research.

OSU College of Forestry Dean Tom DeLuca said collaboration between the university and the state has broken down over the past month, as state officials tried to tie remaining loose strings by the end of the year. He said he hopes they can find a solution.

“As a college, we’re very interested in the whole concept behind the Elliott,” he said. “The idea of having a research forest, it’s addressing these really important questions around alternative management and creating management strategies that are resilient in the face of climate change… And not just pushing it off to another part of the world, but doing it here, and doing it right.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

April Ehrlich, Monica Samayoa
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