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We Journeyed Deep Inside the Elliott State Forest, Before It Is Lost

This land is your land. But will it stay that way?

We were 6 miles deep in the Elliott State Forest, and so far from any marked trail I feared we would never find our way back.

An hour ago, we left a logging road and started climbing up and down steep canyons, crossing trickling streams of frigid, crystalline water. We passed fern fronds twice as long as my arm, and boulders so fuzzy with emerald moss that they looked like Oregon Ducks throw pillows.

We were trying to find the oldest pocket of timber in the Elliott. We wanted to see this place before it was lost.

No piece of public land in Oregon is as imperiled, or as hotly debated, as this one.

The 93,000-acre state forest, hugging the Umpqua River a four-hour drive south from Portland, sits in the center of some of the richest timberland in the Coastal Range. Yet for decades the state has lost money while managing the harvest of fir trees here—and last fall, Oregon's top officials announced a plan to sell it for $221 million to a timber company and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians.

Last week, State Treasurer Tobias Read, the swing vote in favor of the sale, bowed to heavy pressure from environmental advocates and issued a statement saying he sees "a path forward" to keeping the land in public hands (see sidebar here).

That decision is now scheduled for May—with people on both sides of the sale still lobbying Read, Gov. Kate Brown, and Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. (Brown, a Democrat, opposes the sale; Richardson, a Republican, favors it.)

Related: Text messages show the pressure placed on Tobias Read to keep the Elliott State Forest as public land.

The Elliott has become a lightning rod in a growing national debate about the privatization of public lands. That's an especially fraught debate in Oregon, where more than half the land is owned by the federal or state government.

Plenty of Portlanders have talked about the Elliott this winter, often in righteous tones, without ever setting foot here. I was one of them.

I want to see this place before it's all logged, I decided last month, not realizing the Elliott has a long history of logging, and for nearly 100 years has been the site of timber company clear cuts.

I imagined the Elliott in black and white. But the people who spend their lives here taught me to see it in shades of green.

Those are people like Joe Metzler, a retired Coast Guard helicopter rescue swimmer and president of his local Audubon Society chapter. Metzler has become the most visible advocate for the forest remaining public. He's easily recognized in his bright red stockman-style hat, and eager to guide reporters into the woods.

"There's intrinsic value in the Elliott," Metzler told me, as we jostled in his Toyota Tacoma along a deeply rutted road outside the town of Lakeside. "Just because you haven't heard of it doesn't mean you shouldn't appreciate it."

Metzler was one of several people I spoke to during the past two weeks in Lakeside, Reedsport and the other timber towns surrounding the Elliott. These Oregonians see the Elliott as precious. But they also see it as an economic engine—one that has sat dormant for too long.

Metzler agrees. Like many people living on the coast, he blames the state's failure to turn a profit on the Elliott on the very environmental groups now working to save it. Those groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, Cascadia Wildlands and the Audubon Society of Portland—have repeatedly sued the state to limit timber harvests. Metzler sees that as essentially creating an economic incentive for the state to sell it to private owners.

"They had good intentions," Metzler says, "but it backfired on them."

While we drove, I followed Metzler's quick pointing finger, guiding me to conservation efforts the state has been leading, like the laying of timber and boulders in creeks for spawning coho salmon, and the preservation of many old-growth pockets, where bird species like the marbled murrelet nest on the massive branches.

Those efforts could disappear if the state sells. But the Umpqua tribe says it plans to go above and beyond what the state did for conservation (see interview, below).

Parking his pickup among the ferns, Metzler led me on a half-mile hike—or maybe more of a scramble, since we were mostly picking our way across precipitous ridges. He relayed the story of the Elliott as we trudged through mud and over downed trees.

Then we emerged in Silver Grove.

It felt like a temple. Shafts of sunlight filtered through the branches of trees that have stood in this grove for nearly 300 years. The air smelled of a fresh fir, woody and sweet. And the trees were huge: not as massive as California redwoods, but close, behemoths with trunks so large that three adults couldn't stretch their arms around them.

The Elliott State Forest isn't simple, I realized. But it is still holy.

In these pages, you'll meet the people who live among the giants. You'll learn why Tobias Read changed his mind. And through photos, I hope you'll get a glimpse of this place—one that few Oregonians have visited, and that public officials must soon decide whether should continue to belong to us.

"Public lands are the only place I can be myself," Metzler observes. "They're the greatest gift to the American people by the American people."

Meet the people whose fates are entwined with the Elliott State Forest. (More photos of the journey into the woods can be found below the interviews.)

Ellie Keeland

Ellie Keeland, owner of Ellie's Chainsaw Carving Art Gallery, off Oregon Route 38 in Reedsport, is fed up with land restrictions in the Elliott. "The environmentalists, those idiots, forced the loggers out," she exclaims while counting her cash earnings for the day on a dusty workbench.

Keeland grew up in California but has spent most of her time in Southern Oregon. She moved to the outskirts of the forest near Loon Lake and ran a lodge there with her husband. She remembers the forest vividly: "Those trees grew faster than the loggers were cutting them. This was a model forest!"

Keeland doesn't much care if the state or a private company owns the Elliott. She just wants the logging jobs back. "That timber is our green gold," she says. "There's a wealth of natural resources behind Reedsport, but no one can tap into it anymore."

Keith Tymchuk

Keith Tymchuk served six terms as mayor of Reedsport, a coastal timber town with a population of 4,090 (and dropping) about a 30-minute drive north of the state forest.

He's untroubled by the idea of privatizing the Elliott. Tymchuk expects that potential buyer Lone Rock Timber Management Co. would both abide by state policies and offer free public access to the forest—as most private logging companies already do. "It's a working forest," he says. "It was designed to create funds while offering public access."

"But I'm a realist," he adds, and for that reason "it's difficult to see a solution where everyone is happy." So he's noncommittal toward any specific plan—he just wants the environmental lawsuits against logging to stop.

Rex Byers

"Hell no, they shouldn't sell!" says Rex Byers over the hum of a chain saw in the background. The wood carver at Ellie's Chainsaw Carving Art Gallery says he hates the idea of the state selling the Elliott. "I'm no environmentalist," he says, "but this forest is breathtaking."

Byers is a Southern Oregon native whose family members are employed by what remains of the state's timber industry. He recalls fishing in the Millicoma River and hunting elk. He wants a public vote on the sale. He also wants an end to the environmental restrictions that have curtailed logging in the Elliott. "Don't sell the forest," Byers says. "Sell the timber."

Michael Rondeau

CEO of the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Indians, Michael Rondeau says the sale of the Elliott to his tribe and a private timber company could have benefited his people immensely and in many different ways. "We saw this as a way to restore our land base," he says.

Rondeau says timber harvests could bring in much-needed revenue for tribal elders' health care. "We see the forest in decay," he says, and describes the sale as an opportunity to help conserve it. "The forest needs to be managed. We saw this as a path towards securing conservation efforts forever," instead of just from administration to administration.

And Rondeau says if the state decides ultimately to sell, the Cow Creek Band would keep the land open to the public. "Public access was a foundation which our proposal was built on," says Rondeau. "We drink the water, we breathe the air. We have interest in conserving the land for future generations, just like we've been doing for thousands of years."

Correction: This story initially misidentified the town of Lakeside, Ore. as Lakeview. WW regrets the error.