Elliott History

This entertaining book is BY FAR the best historical reference on the Elliott State Forest, and because of efforts from the Oregon Websites and Watersheds Project, the entire book is available for free online. Just click the image above and begin reading!

The author, Jerry Phillips, started working on the Elliott in 1956 and retired as its long term manager in 1989. 

Elliott State Forest History

Founding the Elliott State Forest

When Oregon was admitted as a state in 1859, Oregon was given two sections out of every 36-section Township for the development of primary education (K-12).  Between the time of admission in 1859 and the 1920s, the state was unable to sell or otherwise derive any income from these lands scattered all across the state.  The State Forester at the time, Francis Elliott, was instrumental in the trade with the Siuslaw National Forest whereby the Forest Service got the scattered lands and the State got a consolidated chunk of burnt-over timberland south of the Umpqua River; the bulk of the present-day Elliott State Forest. 

At the time of the trade, roughly 90 percent of the land had burned repeatedly in catastrophic forest fires, so the timber stands were too young to harvest. Actual harvesting of the Elliott State Forest didn't begin in earnest until 1955. Most of the first harvests focused  on removing the best timber: the remnant old-growth stands that hadn't burned by earlier fires. Today, few acres of these original old-growth trees remain, and all management plans since the 1980s have placed them off-limits for logging. The largest and best example of old-growth forest on the Elliott State Forest is the 50-acre Jerry Phillips Reserve that's been permanently protected by the Oregon  legislature.

A more thorough discussion of the Elliott State Forest's creation and early history can be found at the History page of the Elliott Secrets website

Jerry Phillips annotated this map showing south-west Oregon with hand-drawn boundaries and arrows indicating how the 1879 “Big Burn” wildfire swept across 300,000 acres. This fire burnt over 90 percent of the Elliott State Forest.

The George Gould family, including McClay in-laws, first arrived at their Elkhorn Ranch homestead in 1885. They either brought a camera with them, or purchased one shortly thereafter, and began taking photographs documenting the growth of the family, the development of their ranch, and their hunting and fishing successes. This photo shows the Elkhorn ranch in what would eventually become the Elliott State Forest, winter snow, 1889. Lots of dead and dry snags -- few live trees. 

The Elk Creek landslide that formed Gould Lake, about 1894. Notice the blackened snags and their varying diameters, indicating successive fires; probably 1840, 1868 and 1879 were the major events. Leaning reproduction on the perimeters of the slide likely germinated after the 1879 Coos Fire. Also note the nearly complete lack of shrubs and brush. 

In a 2018 Daily Caller interview, a few weeks before the California Camp Fire destroyed the town of Paradise, Bob Zybach said: "You take away logging, grazing and maintenance and you get firebombs." Then someone took his quote, put it on a forest fire photo and posted it from the ruins of Paradise. The resulting meme, that you can see above, quickly went viral on Facebook. It graphically captures what is likely to happen on the Elliott State Forest if we attempt to store ever more carbon in aging forests there. 

Catastrophic fires

OSU's Elliott State Research Forest Proposal ignores the Elliott's fire history and assumes an ever increasing amount of flammable carbon can be stored in the forest. This predictably tragic experiment will almost certainly end with the same sort of explosive fires we saw in Oregon's other public forests in 2020 ... or in the Elliott State Forest area in the 1800s.

Dr. Bob Zybach is a scientific expert on Oregon's fire history: his research has had a particular emphasis on Oregon's coastal fire history  and the Elliott State Forest. Here are some of his thoughts, written after the 2020 Labor Day  forest fires.

The broad arc of Oregon's fire history explains why this year's catastrophic wildfires have converted our public forests into unprecedented firebombs. What were once green trees filled with water, have now become massive stands of pitchy, air-dried firewood.

For thousands of years ancestral Oregon Indian families kept ridgeline and riparian areas open for travel, hunting, fishing, and harvesting purposes. They cleared ground fuels by constant firewood gathering, root harvesting, and seasonal fires.

These actions created widespread systematic firebreaks in a beautiful landscape characterized by foot trails, grass prairies, southern balds, huckleberry fields, camas meadows, oak savannah, and islands of mostly even-aged conifers.

Following the historic 1910 firestorms, the US Forest Service established a nationwide network of fire lookouts and pack trails backed up by rapid response fire suppression. This system became remarkably effective over time.

From 1952 until 1987, for 35 years, only one forest fire in all of western Oregon was greater than 10,000 acres: the 1966 43,000-acre Oxbow Fire in Lane County.

But since 1987, the past 34 years, Oregon has had more than 30 such fires, with several larger than 100,000 acres.

The 2020 Labor Day Fires alone covered more than one million acres, destroyed over 4,000 homes, caused 40,000 emergency evacuations, killed millions of wild animals, and thickly blanketed the state with an acrid, unsightly and unhealthy smoke for nearly two weeks.

What changed to cause this dramatic increase in catastrophic wildfire frequency and severity?

The problems began in the 1960s, with apparently well-intentioned national efforts to create large untouchable wilderness areas and cleaner air and water on our public lands.

The single biggest turning point in how public forests are managed happened on December 22, 1969: about 50 lawyers in Washington, DC created the Environmental Law Institute, and a short distance away congress simultaneously passed the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

Next, the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the 1980 Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA) provided the growing environmental law industry with a way to be paid by the government for challenging nearly every attempt to log or otherwise actively manage public forests.

By the 1980s, the artificial creation of Habitat Conservation Plans (“HCPs”) and the listing of spotted owls as an Endangered Species laid the groundwork for today’s fires.

The 1994 Clinton Plan for Northwest Forests might have been the final nail in the coffin. The subsequent never-ending environmental lawsuits, new Wilderness and HCP creations, access road decommissionings, and fruitless public planning exercises have created tens of millions of acres of massive fuel build-ups and “let it burn” policies that have decimated our forests and wildlife.

A predicted result has been ever larger western Oregon forest fires. More than 90% of these large- and catastrophic-scale fires have taken place in federal forestlands, which represent less than 60% of Oregon’s forested areas.

Lessons from the 1902-1929 Yacolt Fires, 1933-1951 “Six-Year Jinx” Tillamook Fires, and the 1987-2018 Kalmiopsis Wilderness Fires are clear: unless removed, the dead trees resulting from these fires will fuel even greater and more severe future fires.

It will be interesting to see if we can learn from Oregon's fire history and take the prompt, decisive actions needed to avoid the clearly predictable coming firestorms.

A Worrisome Conclusion

A particularly disturbing thought comes from where the OSU research proposal would attempt to store the most carbon on the forest’s west edge near the coastal towns of Reedsport, Winchester Bay, Lakeside, Hauser, Glasgow, Allegany, and North Bend.

All of Oregon’s worst catastrophic fires have been fanned by strong eastern winds, so OSU’s plan puts these towns at risk of being destroyed similar to how Paradise, California was wiped out in 2018 -- and how the Oregon towns of Talent, Phoenix, Rainbow, Blue River, Detroit and Gates were destroyed in 2020.

The OSU plan for the Elliott is a recipe for certain disaster, based on the forest's own history and on the well documented fire history of the entire Douglas Fir Region.

This graph packs an amazing amount of information in one chart. 

Exhibit 13 - Zybach_Graph 2022.pdf

Clicking on the image above will lead to a 9-page PDF file of the “HCPs, LSRs, the ESA & Western Oregon Wildfires, 1987-2022”, article written by Bob Zybach, PhD, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Magazine, Fall 2022.

Harvests and growth

The Elliott State Forest Timber Harvests chart is worth looking at carefully. The left-hand side of the chart shows essentially no harvesting prior to 1955, primarily because young trees were growing back from the 1879 fire, and no one had replanted the timberland, so the process of regrowth was much slower than happens with industrial forestry today. From 1960 through 1985, harvest levels averaged 50 million board feet per year, and that is indicated by the yellow horizontal line. Jerry Phillips, the forest's long-term Oregon Department of Forestry manager, describes the right-hand side of the graph when he wrote:

I am very disturbed by how that Forest has been handled in recent years. Only a tiny amount of its growth has been harvested since 2001, and for four years no harvesting has been done. This has robbed our schools of revenue (for which the Forest was established) and has placed the Forest in great danger from future catastrophic fire. 

Two other items on this graph are worth explaining. The green horizontal line across the graph shows the forest is growing 75 million board feet per year. The white horizontal line shows the 2022 OSU research plan that would harvest 17 million board feet per year, or less than one-fourth of the forest’s growth. 

The green horizontal line across the chart shows how much timber is grown each year, roughly 75 million board feet per year. Finally, the white horizontal line across the bottom at 17 million board feet per year shows how much timber would be harvested under OSU's Elliott State Research Forest Proposal. This means the Elliott State Research Forest Authority will be harvesting less than one-quarter of the forest's growth each year. This is not sustainable: it will pack more and more flammable carbon into the forest, and inevitably, at the end of a summer when a dry east wind helps fan the flames, it will burn up catastrophically. Once this sort of fire begins burning, our society has no way of putting it out: we will simply have to wait for weather conditions to change or for the entire forest to burn.

Timber volumes on the Elliott State Forest: past, present and two future scenarios. 

Timber Volume

This section looks at timber volumes on the Elliott State Forest: past, present, and two future scenarios. 

A long-term overview really helps put things in perspective, so the nearby graph is important because it shows how dramatically the Elliott State Forest has changed over time. Each bar in the graph deserves explanation:

Conclusion: Oregon's coastal forests are not a good long-term place to store huge quantities of flammable carbon; eventually the trees will burn, and they burn hotter and faster when they get older and larger.

This image comes from: "Victory in the Elliott State Forest! 28 Oregon Coast Timber Sales Cancelled"Earth First! Newswire, February 6, 2014. It shows the first of many protests on the Elliott State Forest.

Shutting down the Elliott

Between 2009 and 2014, an increasing number of protests occurred about harvesting trees on the Elliott. These protests involved actions like chaining protesters in Oregon Department of Forestry offices, blocking roads, or dangling protesters in trees from ropes. These protests were effective at generating publicity.

In 2014, the State of Oregon reached a settlement with three conservation organizations, the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands, and Portland Audubon, to cancel 28 timber sales in the Elliott, Clatsop, and Tillamook forests. This agreement is described in "Victory in the Elliott State Forest! 28 Oregon Coast Timber Sales Cancelled",  Earth First! Newswire, February 6, 2014:

"As an organization that works directly with rural communities and the climate justice movement, Cascadia Forest Defenders can’t really get behind land privatization or carbon trading—a false solution to climate change,” [said Ben Jones of Cascadia Forest Defenders, a Eugene-based direct action group] . “The Common School Fund system is unjust and broken, and it’s not really our job to fix it." [Emphasis added]

2015-2017 An aborted sale

The State Land Board attempted to sell the Elliott State Forest starting in August 2015. A Department of State Lands Staff Report explains:

The Board issued its Resolution and Order establishing the Elliott Property Comprehensive Ownership Transfer Opportunity and a transaction-specific methodology for due diligence called the “Protocol”, and directed the Department to implement the Protocol to identify potential comprehensive ownership transferees.

In July 2016, the State Land Board publicly solicited “Elliott Acquisition Plans” and set a November 2016 deadline to deliver proposals to the Department of State Lands. The proposals needed to meet really unusual rules. For example, at a public meeting held in Salem, the Director of the Department, Jim Paul, reiterated that anyone hoping to acquire the 82,000 acres must offer exactly $220.8 million. Any offer above that will be considered “outside the protocol” and deemed “non-responsive.” 

As a result, John Charles, President of the Cascade Policy Institutes wrote:

Clearly this was not a “Market Value” protocol …it was an attempt to create the illusion of competitive bidding, without allowing it. …

The Land Board has invented a ‘fair market’ value of the Elliott timberland without allowing a market to actually function. The price investors are willing to pay might be [the “Market Value” appraisal], or it could be multiples of that number. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because the Land Board is refusing to take competitive bids. Clearly this is a breach of fiduciary trust. Public school students, teachers and parents deserve to get top dollar in this once-in-a-lifetime sale of a public asset.” 

The State Land Board “Protocol” required “enhanced public benefits” as follows: 

The plan must include commitments with enforceable mechanisms to protect enhanced public benefits beyond those which are provided for under applicable law, and without subsidy or cost reduction from the fair market value price. These enhanced public benefits include the following:

a) Conserving public recreational access on at least 50% of the acreage;

b) Conserving the economic benefits by ensuring at least 40 jobs annually from the property for a period totaling 10 years;

c) Conserving older forest stands by protecting from harvest at least 25% of the acreage; and

d) Conserving high quality watersheds by providing riparian management areas of 120 feet or more on both sides of stream segments containing salmon, steelhead, or bull trout, and their transitional upstream reaches;

Oregon Advocates for School Trust Lands has reviewed of these restrictions carefully, and it appears the State Land Board was only offering to sell about half the Forest’s overall value; the other half was required to go into a permanent conservation easement for “public benefit.” 

Nonetheless, as required by the State Land Board’s ground rules, Lone Rock Timber Management Company and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians, submitted a proposal to buy the Elliott State Forest for exactly $220.8 million dollars. In February 2017 the State Land Board voted to accept the Lone Rock proposal. In May 2017, two Board members changed their mind, and the Land Board voted to reject the proposal. The entire May 7, 2017, meeting is available for viewing on the Department of State Lands’ YouTube channel. During the meeting, State Land Board member, Dennis Richardson expressed concern about whether the State Land Board was being ethical:  

We should watch out for our state reputation. I’m afraid we are not going to make that because that’s why I believe the Treasurer and I voted in favor of the sale in February was to complete the deal that had already been offered with protocols and so forth, and we know that legally it might not be enforceable, but when a group of potential buyers spend over a half a million dollars to comply with protocols and then they comply with them, and then for the State to back out, I think that that’s a breach of our ethics.

A May 18, 2017, article in The News-Review  describes why Lone Rock decided to sue for damages:

The Roseburg-based timber company also gave notice of its intent to sue for breach damages, and demanded to be compensated $1,327,900.39 in reliance damages and $2 million in lost opportunity damages. 

“Our unique coalition operated in good faith and met every criteria identified in the state’s transparent, multi-year process to sell the forest,” Toby Luther, CEO of Lone Rock, said in a statement. “It’s clear now, however, that the governor had no intention of accepting a proposal under the established protocol. You cannot simultaneously encourage bidders and commit to bidders publicly while privately planning a shift in policy.”

The Plaintiffs have reason to believe Lone Rock’s lawsuit was successful but that Oregon required the settlement’s details hidden by a nondisclosure agreement. 

The facts listed above may initially make no sense: Why would a trustee place so much value in permanent reserves, and ask for proposals but set a maximum amount that could be bid, and accept a proposal but reject it months later? OASTL believes this attempted sale was an elaborate plan to reduce the purchase price enough so an environmental organization could submit a proposal and be given ownership of the forest on the cheap. But even $220.8 million dollars, which is less than one-quarter of the forest’s actual market value, is more than any environmental organization could raise. So, when a timber company put in the only proposal, this was not what Trustees Kate Brown and Tobias Read expected or wanted. This meant they had to cancel the sale and start afresh with a different plan. While this is the only explanation OASTL believes fits the facts, in a lawsuit, OASTL does not need to prove why the State Land Board behaved so strangely. Unlike most civil complaints, in a Breach-of-Trust lawsuit, Plaintiffs merely need to raise reasonable doubt about the Trustees’ behavior, and the Trustees need to prove they met their duty of loyalty to the beneficiaries.

“May 7, 2017, Oregon State Land Board Meeting” at which the board decided not to sell the Elliott State Forest to the Lone Rock timber group and instead began paying OSU to put together a research forest plan.  Available on the Department of State Lands YouTube channel at: https://youtu.be/WTDwo0TDMRY.

Clicking on the image above will take you to an article explaining why Lone Rock sued the State Land Board in July 2017.

Losing money,  year after year

In October 28, 2016, the Oregon School Board Association issued a press release quoted Margaret Bird:  

In the 235-year history of school trust lands that I have been studying for the last 23 years, no state has spent more than they earned like Oregon has,” she said. “It never has happened.

Since Dr. Bird made this statement in 2016, the losses have continued year after year. Losses for FY2022 were $1,670,000, FY2021 were $1,505,000, and FY2020 were $1,710,000. This level of willful managerial incompetence is truly staggering.

Exhibit 1 -ElliottExpensesOverview.pdf

This "Elliott State Forest Expenses" report was prepared by the Department of State Lands. It shows the Elliott State Forest -- one of the most productive pieces of timberland in the world -- has been losing money every year. 


A letter about the Elliott State Forest written by Jerry Phillips in 2021.

Jerry Phillips' Declaration

The best way to begin understanding the overall history of management decisions about the Elliott State Forest is to read Jerry Phillips declaration. As the long-term Oregon Department of Forestry manager of the Elliott State Forest, he wrote a formal declaration about the forest’s fire history, growth, and management. Sadly, since writing his declaration, Jerry Phillips died. 

Jerry's thoughts contain the wisdom of someone who spent his entire life working on and overseeing the Elliott State Forest. He was justifiably proud that during his 33 years of managing the Elliott, “We generated $790 million dollars of revenue in Oregon’s Irreducible Common School Fund and supported about 400 jobs for the local economy.”

John A. Charles, Jr., President and CEO, Cascade Policy Institute

OSU President stuns Land Board

This section was written by John A. Charles, Jr. 

On November 13, Oregon State University President Jayathi Y. Murthy informed the State Land Board (SLB) that OSU is no longer in a position to participate in management of the proposed Elliott State Research Forest Authority (ESFRA).

The Authority, authorized by the state legislature in 2021, was supposed to be a new state entity that would take ownership of the 84,000-acre Elliott State Forest and convert it to a “world class” forestry research center. Although the Elliott had an estimated market value of $850 million in 1995, it has been losing money for the past decade due to poor decision-making by the Land Board. No timber has been harvested since 2016. The Land Board has been desperate to divest it, and was planning to wrap up the transfer process at its upcoming meeting on December 12.

In a two-page letter, President Murthy stated:

My conclusion was reached through the consideration of multiple factors, including the recent public opposition to the Habitat Conservation Plan and forest management plan by the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians (CTCLUSI).

Although the CTCLUSI had previously shared support for the OSU ESRF Research Proposal, they recently expressed significant concerns regarding the limitations and constraints placed on the management of the overall forest and the acreage dedicated to reserves in the research design.

In addition, from an operational perspective, OSU continues to have significant concerns with the State’s intent to limit variations in annual [timber] harvest volumes in the ESRF, and to move forward with a carbon project on the ESRF.

OSU has been steadfast in its opposition to monetizing the carbon within the ESRF in the early stages for the clear and simple reason that the sale of the forest’s carbon would limit or interfere with the ability of OSU to conduct meaningful research that is critical to addressing important sustainable management questions.

The Elliott was established as Oregon’s first state forest in 1930 and is located in Coos and Douglas counties near Reedsport. The forest was part of a portfolio of lands known as Common School Trust Lands (CSTL), which must be managed for the primary purpose of generating revenue for Oregon public schools. Net income from those lands is transferred into the Common School Fund, where it is invested in stocks, bonds, and other financial instruments.

Oregon began actively managing the Elliott in 1955. For many decades, the ESF was used as expected and generated more than $700 million dollars for Oregon schools, and provided well-paying jobs for rural Oregon workers. Between 1960 and 1990, an average of 50 million board feet of timber was harvested from the Elliott State Forest each year.

Unfortunately, by the 1980s, radical land preservationists had weaponized the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) to halt many commercial timber sales across the country, especially on public lands in the West. This did not bode well for the Elliott, which has large stands of old trees that provide habitat for endangered species such as Spotted Owls and Marbled Murrelets. It was apparent that management costs on the Elliott would rise steadily, while timber harvests would decline.

In response, the Oregon Department of Forestry hired economist John Beuter in 1994 to examine alternative management strategies. Mr. Beuter concluded: 

Selling the Elliott is the only marketing alternative likely to significantly increase net annual income to the CSF. The market value for the forest is not likely to be less than $600 million, and could well be in the neighborhood of a billion dollars.

In 1996 the SLB considered selling the Elliott, along with 600,000 acres of underperforming rangelands in eastern Oregon, but chose not to. Timber revenues on the Elliott continued to drop in subsequent years, and the SLB periodically held work sessions to address the conflicts between timber harvest goals and endangered species protection. The option of selling the forest and putting the net proceeds into the Common School Fund was promoted by Cascade Policy Institute and others, but the Land Board never considered it.

In 2012, an ESA lawsuit reduced harvest levels so much that the Elliott actually lost money. This sent the Board into panic mode. Gov. John Kitzhaber voiced concern that Land Board members faced potential lawsuits from public school districts (CSTL “beneficiaries”) for breach of fiduciary trust.

Eventually the Board, including then-Secretary of State Kate Brown, voted unanimously to establish a process for selling the entire forest. However, the Board designed a bizarre “Sale Protocol” in which a purchase price would be determined by real estate valuations, not an auction. The Protocol also included four restrictions on future owners, related to riparian protection, preservation of older trees, public access and hiring levels. This resulted in an artificially low price of $220.8 million as of December 31, 2016.

Unlike a normal real estate sale, this was the only price the Board would accept. If anyone offered one dollar more, that bid would be deemed “unresponsive.” A certified cash offer for $220.8 million was received from a consortium led by Lone Rock Timber Management Company and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. This appeared to be the solution to the Board’s problem.

However, at the February 2017 meeting of the SLB, Gov. Kate Brown changed her mind and decided that her fiduciary obligations to schools could be met by retaining the Elliott in public ownership. But newly-seated Treasurer Tobias Read, stating his fiduciary trust obligations to schools, voted with SOS Dennis Richardson to accept the Lone Rock offer.

For a brief moment in time, bipartisanship and common sense seemed to have prevailed. It was a false summit. Two months later, the State Treasurer reversed himself. He put forward a new option: give the ESF to Oregon State University to create a research forest; “decouple” the Elliott from the Common School Fund so producing income for schools would no longer be required; and replace lost timber revenue to the CSF by some combination of selling bonds and/or appropriating money from the Oregon General Fund.

The Land Board rejected the Lone Rock offer and later established a group of “stakeholders” to figure out how this new Research Forest would work. However, after a lengthy period of due diligence, the OSU Trustees had the courage to do what Land Board members could not: they declined to take possession of the forest. The likelihood of losing money posed too many risks to other university programs.

They did offer to work up a forest research design and send a team of researchers to manage the operation, as long as the University was not responsible for operational losses.

Faced with this unanticipated result, Kate Brown introduced legislation (SB 1546) authorizing the creation of a new state entity, the Elliott State Forest Research Authority (ESFRA), which would own the forest and contract with OSU to do the research. The Governor’s legislative allies dutifully passed SB 1546 in 2021.

Under the new law, the ESFRA would be created after certain conditions had been met, including a financial plan showing that the Authority would not require ongoing subsidies from the legislature. Of course, this was a nonsensical premise. The whole reason the Land Board was trying to fob off the Elliott to the new Authority was because timber harvest levels had been reduced to zero as of 2017, costing the Common School Fund about $1.5 million annually. 

It became clear by July of 2023 that the financial plan was not going to pencil. The proposed Forest Management Plan was going to prevent timber harvest levels from ever paying for the research program.

In an act of desperation, ESFRA advocates even concocted a scheme for selling an intangible commodity known as “carbon credits,” theoretically produced by leaving trees standing. But even if such credits could be sold for short-term profits, the sale would have worsened the longer-term financial problem by preventing any timber harvesting in much of the forest for 50-100 years. This was referenced by the OSU President in her letter.

As it stands now, every day of bureaucratic delay benefits the opponents of timber harvesting. As the trees age, they provide more habitat for endangered species. The preservationists are simply running out the clock.

A day after receiving the letter from President Murthy, Department of State Lands Director Vicki Walker issued a statement that reiterated the Land Board’s commitment to retaining the Elliott as a public forest, but it’s difficult to see a path forward. The Elliott is now a timber museum, where you can look at trees but not touch them.

Regardless, taxpayers will continue to pay off the $146 million in debt service associated with $100 million in bonds the state sold in 2019 as a down payment on “decoupling” the ESF from the School Fund (the legislature subsequently appropriated $121 million to finish the job). Without knowing it, taxpayers bought a state forest that they already owned.