Less than an hour’s drive south of the arid high desert of Bend, Oregon, sits the Gilchrist Forest. Named for the family that owned the land for most of the 20th century, the Gilchrist is nestled in the northern region of the Klamath Valley. The forest was once home to towering, centuries-old Ponderosa Pines that blanketed the landscape, but a period of aggressive timber harvests in the 1990s left the forest dotted with stands of trees less than 20 years old.
Now, thanks to collaboration and partnership, the forest’s future is a promising story for south-central Oregon. In 2010, the Gilchrist State Forest became Oregon’s first new state forest in more than 60 years.
Providing Future Opportunity
The Gilchrist family sold the 72,000-acre area in 1991 to Crown Pacific, a now-defunct partnership that segment-operated tree farms and sold harvested logs to manufacturing facilities. Crown Pacific heavily logged the area, as many private landowners did, during the 90s and early 2000s. After filing for bankruptcy in 2003, creditors took over the remaining assets, founding Cascade Timberlands, LLC. While the forestland had been focused on providing timber and economic values, a healthy, young forest remained for future opportunity.
In 2010, state leaders purchased an initial 43,000 acres of the land using $12 million of State Lottery-backed bonds. The Conservation Fund purchased an additional 29,000 acres of land surrounding the forest and held the land until more funds became available to the state.
This commitment created new opportunities to protect a large landscape land that could have been fragmented and sold in smaller parcels to private interests, which has been a serious threat to forestlands in Oregon and elsewhere. Fragmentation makes forestry management more challenging and eliminates the possibility of state-run logging operations and multi-use recreation areas, including the revenues that both activities provide.
“Forests are a part of Oregon’s identity and essential to Oregon’s economy and well-being,” said then-Governor Ted Kulongoski, in a statement on the dedication of the new state forest in 2010. “We need to make investments in our state’s economic and environmental future, and that is what we are doing.”
Connecting Divided Lands
The state of Oregon began acquiring parcels of the forest from The Conservation Fund in 2014, and in 2015 the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) finalized the land acquisition plan and connected the entirety of the Gilchrist State Forest. ODF was awarded $3 million from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program—part of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, administered by the U.S. Congress—to complete this historic conservation project.
“The amazing partnerships are what allowed this to happen, from the commitments from the state of Oregon, to the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program and the U.S. Senators Wyden and Merkley that championed the funding, the local Interfor Mill, the local community and the many others that worked together,” said Evan Smith, senior vice president for conservation ventures with The Conservation Fund.
While the state’s plans for the Gilchrist State Forest outline a number of benefits, including timber production, the more than 100-square-mile area could also serve as a new recreational playground for sports like mountain biking and Off-Highway Vehicle use.
“State-owned working forests are managed to provide a range of benefits for Oregonians. Under Oregon law, we provide economic, environmental and social benefits daily, and it’s exciting to work with adjacent communities and a variety of organizations to chart a future vision for the Gilchrist,” said John Pellissier, the unit forester for the ODF Klamath Lake District.
ODF will manage the land to provide long-term benefits for wildlife habitat, timber jobs, recreation and revenue to support local government services and rural communities.
“The forest in northern Klamath County is slowly returning,” said Smith. “It’s an important piece of the conservation landscape and an awesome achievement.”