Who Steals from Children?
Elliott State Forest - Photo Credit: Oregon State University, College of Forestry

Who Steals from Children?

Editor’s Note:
In my 60 years as a working journalist Who Steals from Children is easily one of the most frustrating and purposefully deceptive stories I’ve ever followed.
In brief, members the Oregon Land Board – political appointees of current Governor Tina Kotek and her predecessor, Kate Brown – have been trying to figure out how to hijack the Elliott State Forest. Aided and abetted by Portland Audubon and several other groups, the plan has been to turn the Elliott into a “research” forest where no meaningful timber management will ever again occur. Never mind that the Elliott – Oregon’s first state forest – was originally assembled from Public Domain Lands granted to Oregon by Congress at statehood in 1859. At that time, Congress was actively promoting capital investments in budding communities and economies across the West. Oregon agreed to accept the lands as a permanent and irreducible heritage for "common schools" that today are called "public schools."

The Land Board sleight of hand trick triggered a political firestorm including a strong rebuke from Oregon State University President, Jayathi Murthy, who the Board hoped to lure into their scheme. Her letter and my more detailed report follow:

There is far more to this story than the current political skirmish. The late Wayne Giesy developed a far reaching plan for managing the state forests in Oregon several years ago. Oregon’s timber industry did not like Wayne’s plan, so it went nowhere – sort of.
It resurfaced in the form of a lawsuit filed by Oregon Advocates for School Trust Lands, a non-profit group assembled by Dave Sullivan, an Oregon State University professor emeritus. Sullivan holds a PhD in Industrial Systems Science. His research and lawsuit had much to do with Murthy’s decision to decline OSU participation in the SLB’s hijacking attempt. But there is more...

To understand the Elliott story in its entirety read God, Family and The Elliott: Jerry Phillips 1927-2022. As manager, Phillips turned the Elliott State Forest into a significant and sustainable source of revenue for Oregon schools during his more than 40 years at the helm.
Finally, read Bob Zybach’s Common Sense and The Elliott: The Giesy Plan Option and Zybach Summary Notes from the April 9, 2024 State Land Board Meeting.

Now you are up to speed on what is easily one of the most sordid episodes in the history of Oregon State Land Board politics.

Who Steals from Children?

In a state as liberal as Oregon, who could have guessed the State Land Board would be caught red-handed stealing money from children?

Most living in the state’s liberal enclaves in Multnomah and Marion counties didn’t pay much attention until Oregon State University President, Jayathi Murthy, declined the Land Board’s invitation to participate in further development of the proposed Elliott State Research Forest. 

In her two-page letter to the Land Board, President Murthy, an Indian-American mechanical engineer, took the Board’s six year smoke-and-mirrors campaign apart as diplomatically as she could – but talk about a smack down! 

This comeuppance is richly deserved. Portland Audubon and several other anti-forestry groups have been trying to hijack Oregon’s state forests for decades. Congress granted Oregon 3.4 million acres of Public Domain land when it became a state in February of 1859. At that time, Congress was actively promoting capital investments in budding communities and economies across the West. Oregon agreed to accept the lands as a permanent and irreducible heritage for "common schools" that today are called "public schools."

The history and evolution of Oregon’s Elliot State Forest has been expertly compiled by Bob Zybach, a PhD environmental scientist who worked for years with the late Jerry Phillips, who worked on the Elliott for 37 years, 20 as its manager. 

Also on Zybach’s trapline, the late Wayne Giesy, who saw Oregon’s state-owned forests as economic engines that could support county schools and the state’s westside timber industry in perpetuity. The enormous growth that occurred on the Elliott during Phillips’ years certainly supported Giesey’s belief. 

The graph below tells the story of timber growth and how harvest has been impacted through time by wildfires, spotted owl and marbled murrelet listings, recessions, wind storms, management termination in 2017 and the Land Board’s controversial decision to create an Elliott State Research Forest in 2020.

OSU President Murthy quickly saw the economic and environmental damage the Land Board was orchestrating in its effort to transform Oregon’s most productive state-owned forest into what is essentially a no-harvest reserve where it would be impossible to do boots on the ground research involving harvesting, conserving and monitoring different forest management prescriptions, then measuring results against baseline data to quantify positive and negative impacts of harvest on fish and wildlife habitat.

Murthy’s decision to withdraw from participation in the scheme surely shocked Land Board members who had expected OSU Board of Trustees to bless their plan. But she refused given widespread public opposition to their Habitat Conservation Plan and concerns raised by the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians who saw Elliott research constraints as being so narrowly drawn that useful research was impossible.

Here is the coup de grace from Murthy’s two-page letter: 
“As OSU has already expressed, the notion that research forest managers could maintain a near static timber volume in annual harvest within the research goals and management commitments of the Elliott State Research Forest fails to [1] support the health and resiliency of the forest, [2] recognize the dynamic nature of both forest ecosystems and adaptive management, and [3] support the integrity of a functional, replicated research design as described in the ESRF Research Proposal.”

The litany of events that led to Murthy’s decision began six years ago in a series of disturbing Land Board decisions described to me in a recent email from David Sullivan who is a cofounder of Oregon Advocates for School Trust Lands (OASTL), a non-profit that is suing Oregon and the State Land Board. Sullivan is a professor emeritus at Oregon State and holds a PhD in Industrial Systems Science.

OASTL’s lawsuit seeks to force the State of Oregon to honor the trust fund obligations it assumed when the Elliott State Forest was created in 1930.

“Oregon’s Enabling Act requires School Trust Lands, such as the Elliott, be managed for the benefit of the Common School Fund,” Sullivan wrote in his email. “These lands were to be an endowment for future generations of Oregon Schoolchildren. Over the years, the Elliott State Forest generated more than $700 million for Oregon schools. Now the Land Board wants to terminate the agreement. The record shows they are stealing from children.”

Apart from his OSU affiliation, Sullivan is also a former Corvallis School Board member and Polk County Tree Farmer of the Year in 1991. The summation of his letter to the State Land Board provides a startling chronology of Elliott-related events: 

· Fired the Oregon Department of Forestry from managing the Elliott State Forest six years ago in direct violation of ORS 530.490, the statute that outlines the duties and responsibilities of the State Forester.

· Hired their own forester who works out of the Bend office, a 4.5-hour drive from the Elliott.

· Told the new forester not to allow a single log to be harvested from the Elliott, so the forest began losing millions of dollars each year, despite being some of the world’s most productive forestland.

· Paid for an “investment value” appraisal which assumed the vast majority of the trees would be off limits to harvesting. No surprise; this appraisal was roughly one-tenth of the forest’s market value.

· Used this low-ball appraisal to “pay for” selling the Elliott from the Common School Lands for pennies on the dollar. This stole the heritage given to Oregon when it was founded to use for schools and school children.

· Created really restrictive rules about how Oregon State University could be allowed to use the forest for research. Essentially two-thirds of the forest would be turned into a wildlife preserve, and this would be locked up for 40 to 100 years by selling “carbon credits” and creating ironclad management rules. No substantive changes would be allowed to accommodate changing societal or research needs.

· And then the state Land Board was surprised when OSU decided to back away from this sham “research forest.” Sullivan doubts the State Land Board members seriously considered the possibility OSU would turn down millions of dollars each year in fees along with the prestige of saying they managed the largest research forest in the world. Perhaps even more surprising, OSU’s decision publicly snubbed the same people who provide much of OSU’s general education funding.

“If this list of events were the plot for a movie, a competent director would ask for a rewrite because the plot is unbelievable,” Sullivan wrote. “Who steals money from schoolchildren? The State Land Board? Really?”


The current State Land Board members are Governor Tina Kotek, Secretary of State LaVonne Griffin-Valade and State Treasurer, Tobias Read. However, most of the damage was done during Kate Brown’s eight years as governor, 2015-2023. Read was elected in 2017. Griffin-Valade was appointed by Kotek last June. 

Oregon's attempt to “decouple” the Elliott State Forest from the Common School Fund for pennies on the dollar caught the attention of Advocates for School Trust Lands [ASTL], a national 501 C(3) nonprofit dedicated to making sure that School Trust Lands are used for schools. 

ASTL recruited students, parents and school districts as co-plaintiffs and filed a Civil Complaint in the Coos County Circuit Court. Presiding Judge Andrew Combs conducted a hearing on January 29. More information on this lawsuit is available at www.oastl.org/legal

Judge Combs issued a ruling in late February that attempts to dismiss the lawsuit.

“We will appeal his decision,” Sullivan said in a March 1st email to me. “Oregon has done a superb job of setting up barriers to prevent anyone from being able to sue it, such as legislative immunity, sovereign immunity, no associative standing, and strict deadlines for any tort action. Nonetheless, I expect we will eventually prevail. What Oregon has done is such blatant theft from the Common School Fund, the facts should overcome Oregon’s judicial roadblocks as the case winds it way up to the Supreme Court."

Sullivan believes sunshine remains the best disinfectant for this charade. The more Oregonians learn about the Land Board’s unconstitutional activities, the more this mess stinks to high heaven.”

OSU President Murthy left the door open to further discussions with the Land Board because she sees great potential in the Elliott as envisioned in Senate Bill 1546, which lays out a plan for the management and administration of the proposed research forest, but she noted that the cumulative effect of compromises with preservationist groups eroded the research viability of the forest and, with it, “the ability to serve the public good.”

 Her conclusion:
“Several partners and stakeholders now stand in opposition, and OSU is no longer able to participate as we had hoped.”

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