The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages 1.8 million acres of forestland in Washington on behalf of trust beneficiaries. However, Skagit County wants to take back its forestland from DNR’s control due to what county officials believe is mishandling of those resources as reflected in the latest sustainable harvest plan.
Skagit County Natural Resources Attorney Will Honea told Lens that “what it distills down to is this thing isn’t working for us anymore. We’d like to relieve them (DNR) the burden of managing forests.”
He added that the county hopes to instead co-manage that forestland with the Upper Skagit Indian Tribe. “Tribes generally have complaints about (the) lack of consideration for their resources, so let’s manage these lands together.”
Since the county filed its lawsuit in January 2020, the legal fight has consolidated with other entities that are suing DNR over its sustainable harvest plan, including counties, trust beneficiaries, and timber industry members such as the American Forest Resources Council. Right now, the various plaintiffs are in discovery, a pre-trial process in which parties on both sides can gather relevant information from one another before deciding to settle out of court or proceed with litigation.
While some plaintiffs have had their cases transferred to Thurston County Superior Court, Skagit County’s lawsuit remains in Skagit County Superior Court. DNR sought to have the cases dismissed, but in July 2020 the court rejected the motion.
Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit was filed last year in King County against DNR by environmental groups, and that case was also transferred to Thurston County Superior Court. That lawsuit argued the state agency was prioritizing the trust beneficiaries over other stakeholders, but the challenge was dismissed by the court in October.
The 84,628 acres of trust lands in Skagit County managed by DNR since the 1940s generated $76 million for beneficiaries between 2009-2018, with the revenue funding local schools, fire districts, hospitals, and libraries. DNR keeps 25 percent of revenue as a management fee.
However, the 2015-2024 sustainable harvest plan approved in December 2019 by the Board of Natural Resources (BNR) after a five-year delay reduces the allowable timber harvest in Skagit County by more than 50 percent. The harvest plan was approved in conjunction with a habitat conservation plan (HCP) for the marbled murrelet that bars timber harvests on thousands of acres of working forestland, though the HCP applies to only a small portion of Skagit County’s trust land.
DNR officials have argued that the new sustainability plan reflects overharvesting that occurred in prior years. The plan also allows DNR to respond to short-term timber market changes by permitting annual timber harvests to fluctuate up or down by a maximum of 25 percent.
Forest Resources Division Manager Andrew Hayes said at BNR’s July 6 meeting that “there are circumstances that are either in terms of management landscape or in terms of the market that encourage us…to vary from a straight (annual harvest) amount.” He added that BNR has also directed the agency to further study how to optimize the long-term economic value of forestland.
However, Honea says if overharvesting justified a reduction in future timber sales, it only reinforces the county’s view that the forestland isn’t being properly managed. He added that when BNR adopted timber harvest policies in 2004, the county was promised 70 years of sustainable harvests.
Yet, the county’s lawsuit also cites remarks made at the BNR’s Dec. 3, 2019 meeting by Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal that revenue for trust beneficiaries from timber harvests will need to be replaced with “other progressive sources” due to global warming and changes to the state economy.
“We’re very much a timber county,” Honea said. “There’s a lot of jobs here. We just want good management. These aren’t lands that were granted to the state at statehood. They were given to them by us to manage. If they’re no longer competently able to do that, there’s an easy fix: give them back.”