We’re going to court on behalf of state forests
Conservation Northwest / Jan 29, 2020 / Public Lands, State Trust Lands
Washington state should manage its public forests to benefit all the people.
BY MITCH FRIEDMAN, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
We made a promise more than 20 years ago that we’re working to fulfill. Last month we filed a legal complaint in response to a county and timber industry lawsuit. That complaint, Conservation Northwest v. Hilary Franz (in her official capacity as Commissioner of Public Lands), is to clarify the discretion of the state to manage our two million acres of public lands for the purpose intended in our State Constitution: to benefit all the people of Washington.
Back in 1999, you may have helped us save 25,000 acres of wild habitat on the Loomis State Forest from the ravages of 100 miles of new roads and extensive clear-cutting. Yours might have been among the 16.5 million dollars we raised and presented to the state Department of Natural Resources to purchase that protection in an unprecedented arrangement. Perhaps you were among the countless people who asked me at that time, “Wait, why do we have to pay our government to not log our land?” My answer was, “Because the system is broken. But we need to save the Loomis Forest today and then fix the system later.” Fixing the system was the promise that this lawsuit aims to fulfill.
Much of Washington’s state forests originated from a land grant by Congress at the time of statehood in 1889, and their purposes were specifically addressed in both the Act of Congress that created the State of Washington, and in the State Constitution, which states: “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people,” [ARTICLE XVI].
But through a convoluted legal history, including judicial rulings that mash-up the constitutional intents of various different states, the State of Washington, through its Department of Natural Resources, has come to erroneously manage our public lands as though they owe undivided loyalty to fiduciary trusts, primarily the state’s School Construction Fund. Our arguments are presented in this scholarly article that we commissioned in 2000, and summarized in a recent King County Bar Association Bulletin by our colleague (and co-attorney in this case) Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center.
This isn’t the first time Conservation Northwest has sought to address this problem. In 2001, DNR was planning to log steep, unstable slopes on public land above homes within Bellingham’s drinking watershed of Lake Whatcom.
We undertook over a decade of work that involved two bills passed in Olympia, a DNR landscape plan, and a lawsuit in which we raised the argument the state has the authority under the Constitution to manage the land for public benefit and need not put public health and resources at risk to maximize financial returns. Ultimately the matter was resolved by Whatcom County reconveying these lands, which are now a beautiful 15,000 acre county park. The need to change to legal interpretation remains.
The present case involves DNR’s decisions on the rate state forests will be logged over the next decade and how it should manage habitat for endangered marbled murrelets, a seabird that nests in mature and old-growth trees. When the state adopted decisions on these two matters in early December, the timber industry and some trust beneficiaries, most notably Skagit County, filed suit to force the state to log more aggressively. Our complaint is in intervention and countersuit to the timber industry efforts.
We are allied with Washington Environmental Council, Olympic Forest Coalition, and several individuals whose interests are harmed by the state’s logging policies. We are represented by several lawyers who have made reforming this area of law a professional and personal mission. This is our chance to finally have our arguments heard and resolved by the Washington State Supreme Court.
We are not hostile to the needs of the various trusts or to the communities and people who rely on logging and its revenue. In fact, CNW’s policy director, Paula Swedeen, has been tireless in working with the state, community and industry leaders through DNR’s Solutions Table in support of creative approaches to improve predictability and increase funding. We must find ways to get more benefit from what is logged as well as other economic answers. Our public forests are among our greatest assets and must be managed to their highest use.
A telling testimony to this came at the December meeting of the state board when it adopted the decisions I mentioned. In that meeting, state Superintendent for Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who sits on the Board of Natural Resources, stated publicly that climate change is the biggest factor the state is going to face in the future, impacting forests, wildlife, water quality, people and the economy.
Reykdal said revenue from timber harvests “is not the future of school construction” and money would be better used to protect species and habitat and address climate change while supporting industries and impacted counties. I completely agree. A victory in our lawsuit will give the state the legal ability to balance these essential benefits.
I am thankful to all our supporters for giving Conservation Northwest the means to pursue our vital work. If you are among those who donated to the Loomis Forest Fund and has supported us across these decades, I’m especially thankful to you for trusting us and partnering in the fulfillment of the promise I made.