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Conservation groups want Washington forests managed ‘for all the people’

At a Washington State Supreme Court hearing, a coalition of conservation groups argued state trust lands, including timberlands, should benefit all Washington residents.
Paula Swedeen
Conservation Northwest
At a Washington State Supreme Court hearing, a coalition of conservation groups argued state trust lands, including timberlands, should benefit all Washington residents.

At a Supreme Court hearing, conservation groups argued Washington forest managers should log fewer trees.

Conservation groups want the Washington Department of Natural Resources to change how it manages state trust lands.

At a State Supreme Court hearing today, an attorney for the conservation groups arguedstate trust lands should benefit all Washington residents but it doesn’t. The groups said the state should log fewer trees to generate revenue for public school construction.

The groups said fewer harvest will help the state deal with climate change, thus serving all state residents.

The Department of Natural Resources also should manage these lands for recreationalists, wildlife, and climate resiliency.

“In short, the department’s position is that they must prioritize making money over any interest that conflicts with making money,” said Wyatt Golding, attorney for the conservation groups.

The groups bringing the case against the Department of Natural Resources, Commissioner Hilary Franz, and the Board of Natural Resources include Conservation Northwest, the Olympic Forest Coalition, Washington Environmental Council, and eight individual Washington residents.

Attorneys for the state said trust lands have generated revenue for institutions such as public schools for more than a century. A federal government act, which granted the trust lands managed by Washington, requires revenue generation, said Martha Wehling, assistant attorney general.

“It creates a fiduciary trust, and it creates obligations on the department to generate revenue,” Wehling said.

Those revenues have dwindled as timber harvests declined. In an amicus brief, Judith Billings, former head of public schools in Washington, said that revenue now accounts for 1 to 6% of the common school construction fund.

Chris Reykdal, current superintendent of public iInstruction, said in a 2019 meeting that revenue generated from state trust lands accounts for a tiny slice of the $3.5 billion spent annually on school construction.

“This is not the future of school construction. It just isn’t,” Reykdal said at the Board of Natural Resources meeting.

At the time, Reykdal said climate change is the biggest issue ahead for Washington over the next 10 years. Therefore, he said, state trust funds would be put to better use to protect wildlife, habitat, and industries and counties that will feel the effects of a changing climate.

“We need to live in a very different Washington in 20 years than we do today,” he said of state trust funds.

In court, the conservation argument hinged on one specific phrase and grammar found in the Washington State Constitution: “for all the people.”

Conservation groups said “for all the people” meant state trust lands shouldn’t be managed solely for specific beneficiaries, such as public schools.

“The state has to do a fair and balanced approach to land management,” Golding said. “What they do now, as a matter of law, is they always prioritize revenue over every other interest.”

All people means all, he said, not just a handful of public institutions.

The conservation groups said forests could play a larger role in lessening heat-trapping gasses released into the atmosphere. Logging trees every 80 years instead of every 40 years would allow more trees to sequester carbon, thus slowing down the effects of climate change, the groups said.

However, attorneys for the Department of Natural Resources argued the department already manages trust lands for a variety of reasons, including climate change.

The department constantly manages trust lands, Wehling said, while considering climate change. The department must avoid losing or wasting resources, which includes the catastrophic results of climate change, she said.

In addition, attorneys for the department said Washington’s Legislature and governor have instituted laws and orders to tackle climate change. Attorney Elaine Spencer said the Department of Natural Resources already fosters recreation, protects endangered species, and addresses climate change on its trust lands.

Therefore, Spencer said, this Supreme Court decision doesn’t need to protect the environment.

“The legislative and executive branches have been doing their job. Commercial forestry in Washington, including DNR’s commercial forestry, occurs under some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world,” Spencer said.

When Washington became a state in 1889, the federal government gave the state public lands to manage to generate revenue for institutions, such as public schools, universities and prisons.

Now, the state Department of Natural Resources said it generates revenue on around 3 million acres of trust lands through timber and biomass harvests and agricultural and mining leases. Today, the department also generates revenue through leases for renewable energy projects and cell phone tower sites.

Conservation groups said this decision could be a paradigm shift in how the Department of Natural Resources manages trust lands.

“These lands are a gift that should not have to be squeezed for every dollar when they already benefit us in so many ways, from storing carbon to providing clean water, wildlife habitat, and healthy recreation access,” said Mitch Friedman, Conservation Northwest executive director.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.