By Courtney Sherwood
PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Want to buy a forest? Oregon is preparing to sell off 92,000 acres (37,200 hectares) of coastal woodlands, in a move to distance itself from environmentally questionable timber sales that have long provided revenue to the state's public schools.
Officials expect a sale price between $300 million and $700 million – a big range that reflects uncertainty about the extent of logging restrictions in the Elliott State Forest, an Oregon Department of State Lands spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
Proceeds from the sale would go to the public school trust, as Elliott was made a state forest in 1930 and put into a public trust to fund education through timber sales.
The move to sell it aims to provide funds for education, even as the state under pressure from environmental groups has recently curtailed logging in the coastal rainforest.
"The Elliot State Forest is tied to the common school fund and must provide revenue for that fund," said State Lands spokeswoman Julie Curtis. "If it is not going to provide revenue – and recently it has not been – then some other solution must be found."
Any future buyer will be asked to keep at least some portions of the forest open to the public and to protect the old-growth timber that makes up about half of the site, Curtis added.
But if a government or conservation group does not submit a bid, private interests could take ownership of the forest under the terms of a Tuesday decision by Oregon's State Land Board to look for new owners, she added. Nevertheless, environmental groups lauded the move.
"For years, Oregon has clear-cut old-growth forest to fund school kids," Josh Laughlin, campaign director at Cascade Wild. "That's not working anymore."
State figures show that timber sales from Elliott raised more than $100 million for schools between 1997 and 2012, but logging there threatens the habitat of the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that builds nests in old growth woods, state officials and environmentalists say.
Under pressure from environmentalists, the state scaled back logging in 2013. Without timber sales, however, upkeep of the forest drained school funds of $3 million that year.
State officials said on Wednesday that they are just beginning to outline a plan for selling the forest lands, and will not likely accept bids for the site until 2016 or later.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sandra Maler)