Common School Fund bows out of Elliott State Forest saga
Tuesday, December 13, 2022
The Elliott State Forest is officially no longer the Common School Fund’s concern.
The State Land Board voted unanimously Tuesday to finish the yearslong effort to decouple the forest from the fund and turn it into a research forest. The board took some time to celebrate, including having Oregon Poet Laureate Anis Mojgani read two poems and honoring its advisory committee.
“There were a lot of moments over the years when I, at least, doubted we would be able to pull this off,” said State Treasurer Tobias Read, a board member, during the meeting. The other board members are the governor, Kate Brown, and the secretary of state, Shemia Fagan.
Retired OSBA Deputy Executive Director Mary Paulson said education advocates achieved their goals with the forest and Oregon gained one of the world's largest research laboratories. Paulson was part of an advisory committee that had been working for nearly four years to come up with the decoupling plan.
“All that work culminated in something good for the state of Oregon and students,” Paulson said. “It took something that could have been very controversial and created a win for Oregonians.”
Paulson said it was a relief to no longer have the forest tied to the fund. OSBA played a forceful role in making sure students benefited from the forest as was intended.
The forest northeast of Coos Bay was established in 1930 to provide money to public education through the Common School Fund. But since 2012, timber rules have often made the forest more expensive to manage than the revenue it could produce. OSBA pressed the State Land Board to sell the forest to meet its fiduciary duty to maximize revenue for public school students.
The forest was valued at $221 million for a sale in 2017, but the board scrapped the deal. Brown called for the forest to be kept publicly owned, but OSBA argued the state was still required to compensate students through the Common School Fund.
The State Lands Department convened a 16-member advisory board that brought together industry, environmental, public agency, tribal and education representatives. Paulson and former Reedsport School Board member Jen Clark were among the board members.
In 2019, the Legislature issued $100 million in bonds to partially compensate the fund as the state explored its options. In December 2020, the board approved a proposal to turn the forest over to Oregon State University to manage as a research forest.
Paulson said the plan wasn’t perfect but most interest groups, including education, came away satisfied.
In 2022, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1546 to deliver an additional $121 million to the fund and create the Elliott State Research Forest.
The Common School Fund was valued at $2.2 billion in 2022 and sent $64.2 million to school districts based on enrollment.
Tuesday’s vote was the final formal step separating the forest from the fund, but the work on creating the research forest is just beginning. A transition plan is expected by July 1. The forest’s usage will attempt to balance research, conservation, public recreation and some logging.