Major Forest Protections to Advance in 2022 Legislative Session

The 2022 short legislative session, which runs from February through mid-March, will see at least two bills that could considerably advance forest conservation in Oregon. These bills would (1) convert the 82,000-acre Elliott State Forest into an Oregon State University Research Forest, and (2) significantly increase riparian protections under the Oregon Forest Practices Act (OFPA), which regulates more than 10 million acres of private forestland. Both pieces of legislation have the potential to realize significant advancement on two of the most hotly contested forest issues of the past decade, and both are the result of intense and extensive negotiations.

A Northern Spotted Owl perches on a mossy branch, while looking up towards the upper tree canopy.
Northern Spotted Owl by Scott Carpenter

Elliott State Forest

The Elliott State Forest is one of the crown jewels of the Oregon Coast Range. This steep coastal rainforest spanning Douglas and Coos Counties is a stronghold for Marbled Murrelets, Northern Spotted Owls, and coastal Coho salmon. Due to an anachronistic provision in state law tying children’s education to timber harvests, revenue from the Elliott goes to the Oregon Common School Fund, and for decades, the State illegally clear-cut the Elliott to generate increased revenue.

In 2011, Cascadia Wildlands, Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and Bird Alliance of Oregon sued the State of Oregon arguing that the State was violating the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) by harvesting in listed Marbled Murrelet habitat. The State agreed to settle the lawsuit and adopt more limited logging practices that complied with the ESA, but then turned around and in 2017 attempted to sell the Elliott to private timber companies, triggering two more lawsuits from Cascadia, CBD, and Bird Alliance of Oregon, massive public opposition, and more than a year of protests. The State eventually reversed course and recognized that the Elliott must remain in public ownership.

For the past two and a half years, Bird Alliance of Oregon has been participating on a state-appointed stakeholder committee along with representatives from tribes, counties, schools, recreational interests, timber interests, and other conservation groups to chart a new path forward on the Elliott to convert it to a research forest managed by Oregon State University. Treasurer Tobias Read’s office has played a critical role in helping advance this process. Bird Alliance of Oregon’s North Star has always been ensuring strong, durable protections for the Elliott’s incredible older forests and imperiled species. We believe we are on the precipice of achieving that objective. A full analysis of the plan can be seen on Bird Alliance of Oregon’s website.

Legislation in the 2022 session would do two things: First, it would create the Elliott State Research Forest structure. This research forest would be owned by the State, with a board appointed by the Oregon Land Board, and would be managed by OSU. Legislation would include accountability and enforcement mechanisms such as public notice, comment, and meetings; public records; and right to third party litigation to ensure compliance with the governing agreements. Second, Governor Kate Brown has stated that she intends to pay down the remainder of the obligation to the Common School Fund (current estimate is $121 million) and end this anachronistic funding structure that created pressure to liquidate the forest to fund education. While still under development, the legislation appears to have support from a diverse array of historically antagonistic stakeholders and presents the potential to launch the Elliott into a new era of sustainability and collaboration.

Forest Committee Negotiations with Gov. Brown
Governor Brown meeting with the environmental team during negotiations.

Oregon Forest Practices Act Accords

The OFPA has long been criticized by the conservation community for its weak protections for the health of private forest lands. Decades of efforts to reform the OFPA through legislative and administrative channels have proved futile. In 2020, conservation groups strongly considered bringing a ballot measure to reform the OFPA directly to the voters. The timber industry responded with proposals for measures of their own. With the threat of expensive and divisive ballot measures looming, Governor Brown stepped into the fray and had her staff facilitate a detente. In exchange for standing down on the dueling ballot measures, the timber industry would agree to a pesticide reform package up front, and the governor’s office would facilitate six on six negotiations between the timber industry and conservation groups to develop reforms focused on imperiled aquatic species to the regulations governing stream protections under the OFPA. This process, dubbed the Oregon Forest Practice Act Accords, was codified in a special legislative session in 2020 and signed by 13 conservation groups and 13 timber companies.

Bird Alliance of Oregon is proud to be part of the amazing conservation negotiating team that included the Wild Salmon Center, Oregon Wild, Klamath Siskiyou Wildlands, and Trout Unlimited. Special kudos to Bob Van Dyk of Wild Salmon Center and Sean Stevens of Oregon Wild, who led the effort. For more than a year, we have had facilitated meetings multiple times a week with each other, with industry, and with issue-oriented scientific teams. This work culminated in November 2021 with a solid week of face-to-face negotiations at the Oregon World Trade Center. The final day of negotiations stretched more than 17 hours until early Saturday morning, with the governor attending the entire session.

The final negotiated package includes new and expanded protections for fish-bearing streams as well as perennial and seasonal non-fish-bearing streams, torrent debris channels, and steep slopes. There is an extensive package to reduce the impacts of forest roads, culverts, and stream crossing. The agreement focuses heavily on imperiled fish species, salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, but also on imperiled amphibians and on beaver, which, while not imperiled, play a critical role in helping restore our riparian ecosystems. It also includes adaptive management, research, funding, and enforcement mechanisms. Additional details can be found on Bird Alliance of Oregon’s website.

The agreements would be codified through legislation in the 2022 session. Within six years of passage, the State would seek approval of a habitat conservation plan from the National Marine Fisheries Service US Fish and Wildlife Service determining that the new regulations are sufficient to provide protection for agreed upon species and protect the State from liability under the ESA for these species. Failure to obtain approval for an HCP would result in the sunsetting of these new protections. The governor has stated that passage of the OFPA Accords in the 2022 session is among her highest priorities.

Looking Forward

The 2022 legislative session presents the possibility of launching two of Oregon’s long-standing and most contentious forest issues into a new era of protection and collaboration. Neither agreement is perfect—both have elements that we dislike or believe should have gone further. However, at the same time, we believe that both agreements substantially raise the bar for protection of imperiled species and imperiled ecosystems and set the stage for further advancements. Both agreements are a reflection of the ethic Bird Alliance of Oregon tries to bring to its conservation work: a willingness to fight when necessary but collaborate where possible. In the case of the Elliott State Research Forest and the OFPA Accords, we believe that these agreements will create significant, durable new protections on some of the highest priority and longest contested forest landscapes.