Conservation Northwest, Olympic Forest Coalition, Washington Environmental Council and local individuals filed complaint in King County Superior Court on January 2nd calling on the Department of Natural Resources to manage public forests for the public good, including diverse economic and environmental values, in accordance with the state constitution.

For Immediate Release: January 6, 2020

In response to lawsuits by the timber industry and counties calling for more logging, a complaint filed late last week by a coalition of local conservation groups and residents seeks a shift in the way Washington manages its state forests for public benefit. The suit calls on the Department of Natural Resources to better reflect language in the state constitution requiring that these public lands be managed to maximize benefit for all the people of the state.

The suit also underscores the need for trust beneficiaries, including rural counties and school districts, to have a more reliable source of funding instead of being tied to unstable revenue flows and often unsustainable logging on public forests that frequently comes at the expense of other public benefits. Today, state forests are recognized as providing a multitude of diverse economic and environmental benefits for Washingtonians beyond simply timber for harvest.

In their complaint filed in King County Superior Court on January 2nd, the petitioners are clear that local services, especially in rural counties which presently depend heavily on revenue from state timber sales, require additional means of funding. All three non-profit groups involved have been working with the state, community and industry leaders through DNR’s Solutions Table in support of creative approaches to improve predictability and increase funding.

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].

This public land base was added to over time, with the state legislature deciding that the constitutional direction applies to all state lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources under the direction of its Board of Natural Resources and the Commissioner of Public Lands. But there has been significant public and legal debate over the intent of the constitution, and whether the management of state forests reflects the scope of its wording, which this lawsuit seeks to finally resolve.

“The people who wrote the Washington State Constitution showed remarkable vision, using language that would allow all the people of our state to have an evolving relationship with our public lands and forests, benefiting from their many values,” said Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Conservation Northwest. “Today, these assets represent so much more than just revenue to the named trusts. Our forests store carbon to offset climate change, provide clean water, support fish and wildlife, and foster outdoor recreation and tourism. The question is whether the law requires the state to hold trust funding over these and other public values, or whether the language of the Constitution allows the state to balance management of public lands for all the people.”

“This suit is about the health of our state and our communities,” said Becky Kelley, President of Washington Environmental Council. “Washingtonians shouldn’t have to choose between funding for schools and counties, and protecting forests, fish and wildlife, and clean water. In our prosperous state, our leaders can and must find solutions that deliver both, as our state constitution directs. We are ready to help craft and implement these solutions so rural residents can have a healthy local economy and a healthy environment.”

“The climate crisis adds further uncertainty for the future of trust beneficiaries, fish and wildlife, and rural communities, underscoring the need for increased stewardship and long-term vision in the management of our public lands,” said Patricia Jones of Olympic Forest Coalition. “We’re asking the court to hold that providing additional conservation values and diverse public benefits is not a ‘give-away’ of trust assets in this climate-challenged world, but rather is in the best interest of all Washingtonians for whom state forests are held in trust.”

Recently, 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 while supporting industries and impacted counties.

“In the face of climate change, Washingtonians need the full range of benefits from sustainably-managed state forests—including carbon storage, clean water, fire resilience, wildlife habitat, wood products, and the many kinds of jobs that depend on healthy forests,” agrees Kelley. “Our state leaders require the discretion to deliver the full range of benefits from our forests, rather than always having to prioritize short-term revenue for specific trusts—latitude we believe the constitution provides. We need a management approach that allows us to move forward together so we can effectively respond to the threats of the climate crisis, conserving our natural and community heritage for the benefit of all.”

“It’s high time we respect the wisdom of our Constitution and stop limiting the performance of the Evergreen State’s greatest asset, our public forests, to narrow needs,” said Friedman.

The organizations and individuals in this case are represented by the Washington Forest Law Center and the Ziontz Chestnut law firm.

Lawsuits calling for more logging on public lands were previously filed against the Department of Natural Resources and its Board of Natural Resources’ sustainable timber harvest level for state trust lands by the American Forest Resources Council, a timber industry trade group, Skagit County, and others.

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For More Information

Chase Gunnell, Conservation Northwest, cgunnell@conservationnw.org, 206-465-8591

Nick Abraham, Washington Environmental Council, nick@wecprotects.org, 206-833-7021

“Keeping the Northwest wild” since 1989, Conservation Northwest is a regional non-profit organization that protects, connects and restores wildlands and wildlife from the Washington Coast to the British Columbia Rockies. Staff operate in local communities and rural areas around Washington and into southern B.C., using dialogue to find common ground and collaborative solutions for challenging issues including habitat corridors, wilderness conservation, forest restoration and endangered species recovery.

The Olympic Forest Coalition (OFCO) promotes the protection, conservation and restoration of natural forest ecosystems and their processes on the Olympic Peninsula. This mission includes monitoring and caring for the public forests, watersheds and bays of the Peninsula. OFCO’s approach integrates science-based solutions that protect and restore natural ecosystems, threatened and endangered species, and healthy rural communities. OFCO incorporates the climate crisis and mitigating its impacts on the Olympic Peninsula as foundational for all of its work.

Washington Environmental Council is a nonprofit, statewide advocacy organization that has been driving positive change to solve Washington’s most critical environmental challenges since 1967. Our mission is to protect, restore, and sustain Washington’s environment for all.