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Lawsuit seeks to block sale of Oregon forest lands

Associated Press Updated: April 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm 0

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Conservation groups filed a lawsuit Monday to block the sale of a portion of the Elliott State Forest to a private timber company.

The lawsuit filed in Lane County Circuit Court in Eugene contends a 1957 law prohibits the state from selling any portion of the Elliott that previously was part of a national forest. It notes most of the 788-acre East Hakki Ridge parcel was part of the Siuslaw National Forest in 1913, when it was part of a land exchange that created the Elliott State Forest.

The Seneca Jones Timber Co. submitted the only bid for the parcel, which is near the southern banks of the Umpqua River in Douglas County and might include marbled murrelets, a threatened seabird whose habitat protection has meant less logging in the Pacific Northwest.

The state set a minimum bid of $1.82 million in the sealed-bid auction, and Seneca Jones topped it by $75,000.

Two other parcels, which attracted only two bids apiece, were sold to the Scott Timber Company. Neither of those is part of the lawsuit that names the Department of State Lands as the defendant.

Julie Curtis, a State Lands spokeswoman, said the agency would not discuss pending legal matters.

"Basically we believe we're on solid legal ground and are moving forward with all three sales," she said.

Seneca Jones officials did not return a request for comment. Co-owner Kathy Jones made waves before the sale when she told The Oregonian newspaper that the company did not need the East Hakki Ridge timber and submitted the bid as a challenge to "eco-radical" environmental groups who promised lawsuits to protect the marbled murrelet.

Francis Eatherington, conservation director with Cascadia Wildlands, said Jones' comments played no part in the decision to file the lawsuit. She said privatizing public land is illegal in this particular sale, making litigation inevitable.

"There's a reason why we shouldn't be selling off our highest-valued public lands," Eatherington said. "These are beautiful coastal temperate rainforest lands that have a high potential for recreation."

Unlike other state forests, the Elliott is managed to generate money to support public education. Officials say the Common School Fund lost money in fiscal-year 2013 because litigation over murrelet habitat slowed timber sales. The forest also is working on developing harvest plans that can pass federal muster on protecting habitat for coho salmon and northern spotted owls, both threatened species.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and other state officials decided in December to move ahead with the sale of 2,700 acres of Elliott forest, saying that state needed to determine its worth.

An appraiser hired by the state said the presence of marbled murrelets would sharply diminish the land's value, from an estimated $22 million to less than $4 million. The state has to look for murrelets before offering timber for sale, and cannot go head if they are found. Private timber owners are less restricted. The Oregon Forest Practices Act does not require them to look first, though they still face federal penalties if they kill protected species.

Eatherington said the parcels sold to Scott Timber were not part of the Siuslaw National Forest and therefore were not part of the lawsuit. She said logging is active in parts of the Elliott not considered high-priority wildlife habitat.

"They aren't going to necessarily lose money again this year, or in the future." she said.

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Follow Steven DuBois at http://twitter.com/pdxdub

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