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Rural residents from across Washington, educators and conservationists ask Court to interpret the plain terms of the State Constitution providing that “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people”.

OLYMPIA, WA—Tomorrow, October 21, 2021, the Washington State Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Conservation NW, et al. v. Commissioner of Public Lands et al., No.; 99183-9. This historic case asks the Court to interpret the plain terms of the Washington State Constitution providing that “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people.”

Oral arguments for this case begin at 10 a.m. via Zoom, and can be watched live on TVW at: https://www.tvw.org/watch/?eventID=2021101173

The organizations and local residents represented in the case are urging the Court to hold that the plain terms “for all the people” and Washington’s unique federal land grant history authorize and require the State and Commissioner of Public Lands to manage these state public lands for the greatest value for all Washingtonians, including both revenue from timber and values derived from our forests such as clean water, tribal treaty rights, outdoor recreation, habitat for fish and wildlife, climate stability, and other public benefits.

“Today we move a big step closer to clear legal determination of whether Washington’s state public lands may be managed in the best interests of all the people,” said Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Conservation Northwest. “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 Friedman. “After over twenty years of believing the law says one thing while watching our resources sacrificed under a strained and biased interpretation, I can’t wait for the State Supreme Court to speak on the matter.”

Much of Washington’s state forests and other state public lands—nearly three million acres in total—originated from a land grant by Congress at the time of statehood in 1889. The purposes for this land, now managed by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR), were specifically addressed in the State Constitution, which states: “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people,” [ARTICLE XVI].

“Washington’s forests are among our state’s greatest assets, providing innumerable cultural, economic, and environmental benefits, said Lisa Remlinger, Chief Policy Officer, Washington Environmental Council. “The Washington State Supreme Court’s decision to grant direct review of this case brings us closer to recognizing the full value and potential of our public lands—an especially important ambition at a time when our climate and communities are in crisis. We stand ready to help develop solutions for management of our public lands that meet the challenges of today, and can weather the inevitable changes to Washington’s climate, population, and economy. By truly managing state lands to benefit all the people, we have an opportunity to support both resilience and economic well-being for rural communities, and a healthy environment for all Washingtonians for generations to come.”

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.

“We are beginning to see unprecedented changes in our state forests, habitats, and watersheds from the climate crisis,” said Connie Gallant, President of the Olympic Forest Coalition. “The revenues for school construction and essential services are important now more than ever because of pandemic deficits. We can no longer afford to sacrifice our forests for short term revenues. We have to balance the interests of all the people with the ecological and economic imperatives we face. This case will hopefully resolve the legal issues and that will leave us a clear path to resolve the policy differences, balance our interests and find a path forward.”

Backers of the case believe DNR’s current management of trust lands is based on a misreading of legal requirements, and is not beneficial to all the people of Washington. Additionally, science increasingly shows these forests are critical for carbon sequestration in the fight against climate change.

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

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More information on Washington’s State Trust Lands is available in this backgrounder: https://wecprotects.org/our-work/areas-of-work/evergreen-forests/public-lands-and-resources/background-on-state-trust-lands-litigation/

Additional perspectives are also available in this July 2019 King County Bar Association Bulletin article by Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center: 
https://www.conservationnw.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/2019_07_WashingtonStateForests.pdf  

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“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.

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