A lawsuit against the state by numerous trust land beneficiaries filed last year argues that the sustainable harvest strategy adopted by the Board of Natural Resources (BNR) fails to meet its fiduciary duties. However, that case and a separate but related legal fight have also underscored how logging continues to fund critical local services such as education, fire districts, and road infrastructure.
In December 2019 BNR approved the sustainable harvest strategy that reduces timber harvests, along with a Long Term Conservation Strategy (LTCS) that prohibits logging on thousands of acres of working forestland to protect the Marbled Murrelet. Since then Skagit County has filed a lawsuit and is seeking to reclaim its trust land. Other beneficiaries have joined in the lawsuit, including the Sedro-Woolley School District and Burlington-Edison School District. However, the lawsuit only concerns the sustainable harvest and not the LTCS.
Since that lawsuit was filed in January 2020, other beneficiaries have sued the state, including:
- Concrete School District
- Mason County
- Clallam County Fire District No. 4
- Naselle-Grays River School District
- Quillayute Valley School District No. 402
- Wahkiakum County
- Pacific Count
- Skamania County
- City of Forks
The lawsuits alleges that the state is in violation of its trust obligations to generate revenue on those lands for its specific beneficiaries, a duty affirmed by the State Supreme Court in the 1984 case County of Skamania v. State. Under the 2004-2015 sustainable harvest plan, the goal was to harvest 5.5 billion thousand board feet of timber (MMBF), but that figure was missed by roughly 460 MMBF – more than the total timber harvested from state trust land in 2015.
In a March letter to BNR, Port of Port Angeles Executive Director Karen F. Goschen wrote that “reductions in DNR timber harvests greatly impacts our community far beyond the challenges of decreased revenue for junior taxing districts. The loss of living wage jobs is of critical concern, as well as the domino effect of the flow of logs and fiber within the very complex and integrated local forest products industry in our community.”
Goschen added: “Where will we get enough sustainably harvested wood for lumber if we continue to find reasons not to harvest the very lands that were set aside as working forests?”
Yet, a third lawsuit filed by Conservation Northwest against the state argues there is no legal obligation to those beneficiaries specifically, which if successful would overturn the Skamania ruling. The case was dismissed in Thurston County Superior Court, but the plaintiffs have appealed to the State Supreme Court for review.
In a brief filed in support of the state, the American Forest Resources Council (AFRC) claims that Conservation Northwest’s argument “cherry-picks and reinterprets an isolated phrase in conflict with the text, context, and intent of the Constitution. The trust lands helped build Washington in its first century and they will continue to provide important benefits in its second.”
The brief also highlights how logging on those trust lands continues to support local services, and consequently how the new sustainable harvest plan would affect that funding. Mason County has 28,919 acres in trust land managed by the state. However, its timber harvests have varied greatly year-over-year, with 13,300 MMBF harvested in 2017 compared to 25,577 in 2005. As a result, the county no longer uses that money to pay its staff salaries, though it still relies on it for infrastructure upgrades.
Wahkiakum County is equally, if not more, dependent on timber harvests off of its 12,612 acres of trust land; over the past 10 years a quarter of its annual budget has been funded by logging. Working forestland is also critical for taxing districts like Clallam County Fire District No. 4, with 30-50 percent of its revenue coming from trust land timber sales.
AFRC’s brief notes that these revenue sources support communities in the state that have not enjoyed the same economic growth as those where the tech industry has taken root. “The last fifty years have seen a remarkable transformation of the economic base of the Central Puget Sound Region. Outside of Central Puget Sound, however, there has been no comparable explosion and diversification of the tax base.”
AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite told Lens that “forestland in Western Washington is some of the most productive timberlands in the world. This is a place where you should be able to have very solid harvest levels, very solid revenues to trust beneficiaries, while at the same time doing everything you need to do for environmental protection of species.”
He added: “With the right tools and the right plan, it will be to everybody’s benefit.”
Conservation Northwest’s lawsuit against the state is scheduled for oral argument in front of the State Supreme Court in October.