Today four Washington counties and a coalition including school and fire districts filed a legal challenge to two management plans for state trust lands adopted by the Board of Natural Resources (BNR) in December that will adversely harm the delivery of critical public services. The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) is joining with these beneficiaries of state land trusts in the lawsuit.
The lawsuit alleges the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and BNR violated the state constitution and state laws in developing and adopting a Sustainable Harvest Calculation (SHC) and a Long Term Conservation Strategy (LTCS) for the Marbled Murrelet that unlawfully reduce annual timber harvest levels on state trust lands. A copy of the complaint can be found here.
The complaint, filed in Skagit County Superior Court, alleges the SHC and LTCS conflict with DNR’s fiduciary duty to manage state trust lands to harvest timber at sustainable levels for trust beneficiaries, which include counties, public schools, fire departments, libraries, hospitals and other public entities.
The plans would reduce the annual expected timber harvest levels on DNR trust lands by 85 million board feet over the next several years—a 15 percent decrease across the board. BNR’s decisions are expected to cause an annual loss of nearly $30 million in potential revenues to support a variety of public services. According to a regional economic analysis, the harvest reduction could result in the loss of 935 Washington jobs.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are directly and negatively impacted by BNR’s decisions. For example, the Concrete School District depends on timber harvests from local trust lands to provide a quality learning environment for its students. Yet this year the school district has only received $67.92 in revenue from DNR trust lands. Facing yet another funding reduction, Superintendent Wayne Barrett says the new management plans represent a breach of DNR’s fiduciary duty to manage these lands.
“The recent decision by the Board to adopt the long-term management plan has a significant impact on the Concrete School District with a sustainable harvest reduction from 36 million board feet to 16 million in our area. This reduction, coupled with the highest reduction of any other entity because of the Marbled Murrelet management plan, will impact our ability to make needed upgrades to facilities and infrastructure.”
Counties and junior taxing districts rely on timber revenues to provide a full range of public services in their jurisdictions. For rural counties such as Wahkiakum, Pacific, and Skamania Counties, timber revenues may make up over 20 percent of a county’s entire operating budget. Any reduction in DNR timber harvests and trust land revenues will result in layoffs and reductions in basic public services such as road maintenance, after-school programs, and emergency response.
“Skamania County has a huge interest in ensuring that our previous defense of the State’s obligation to its fiduciary responsibilities for the Timber Trusts via the DNR be maintained,” said Skamania County Commissioner Tom Lannen. “We believe the decision by the Washington State Board of Natural Resources is in violation of the trusts and will cause economic harm to the impacted counties. It also opens the door to future attempts to alter or mitigate their current and future obligations. This will not be the last attempt to diminish the trusts. It is imperative that Washington’s Timber Counties stand together on this issue so critical to our counties’ socio-economic well-being.”
“Wahkiakum County is participating in this effort to hold the Department of Natural Resources accountable,” said Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren. “Bottom line our county is still losing around a one million per year in lost revenue because of Marbled Murrelet long term conservation strategy.”
AFRC President Travis Joseph says the DNR’s failure to manage state trust lands consistent with the trust mandate will result in a ripple effect of negative socio-economic consequences throughout rural western Washington, including the losses of public services, family-wage and economic opportunities, and the further erosion of struggling Washington communities.
“Our members have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their Washington facilities, equipment, and the communities where they operate – and they depend on the sustainable source of timber provided by the state trust lands to stay in business,” Joseph said. “These operations support thousands of family-wage jobs in rural Washington communities, and the arbitrary reductions in harvest from state trust lands are the equivalent of the total wood supply needed for at least one of our members’ sawmills. In other words, the Board’s decisions will eliminate blue collar jobs and reduce revenue for critical public investments.”
“We need to keep all of Washington’s remaining milling infrastructure if we’re serious about getting ahead of our state’s forest health crisis, building more with local, sustainable materials, and managing our forests as part of the solution to address carbon emissions and climate change. Our members are committed to the health of Washington’s forests and rural communities, which is why we are working with trust beneficiaries in seeking to uphold the law,” Joseph said.
The complaint alleges that in determining the SHC, DNR failed to conduct systematic, on-the-ground inventories of its trust lands, instead using inaccurate data and a flawed model intended to support specific policy choices at the expense of trust beneficiaries. It also states the SHC suffers from a lack of transparency, because the agency did not disclose how it generated results to calculate future timber harvest levels.
In adopting the LTCS, AFRC and the beneficiaries argue much of the land set-asides do not help the Marbled Murrelet, a species listed under the Endangered Species Act, because DNR chose to reserve large areas of young, previously managed forests that experts have concluded will never become habitat for the seabird. DNR misapplied a model to identify and evaluate Marbled Murrelet habitat for its conservation strategy when field reviews found these lands consist of second- and third-growth forests that lack suitable habitat. Further, the complaint states the LTCS also failed to recognize the conservation benefit of tens of thousands of acres of Marbled Murrelet habitat already set aside under the 1997 Habitat Conservation Plan—a plan that came at a great financial cost to the beneficiaries of state trust lands.
In the complaint, the beneficiaries say they sought to work proactively and constructively with DNR on solutions that upheld the agency’s fiduciary duty. The plaintiffs supported an alternative that provided actual habitat for the seabird, and would have allowed DNR to meet its federal mandate to conserve the species, while providing sufficient timber to protect beneficiaries and rural communities. Yet both DNR and BNR rejected those solutions, opting for policy choices that violate the state constitution and the law.
The lawsuit also alleges that DNR violated the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) by failing to properly evaluate in its Environmental Impact Statements the impacts these decisions would have on the public services due to reductions in revenues to trust beneficiaries. AFRC and the beneficiaries claim DNR failed to analyze the impacts that reductions in harvest levels would have on schools, fire districts and other community services that depend on timber revenues.
With the adoption of the LTCS and the SHC plans, AFRC and the beneficiaries say DNR has wrongfully chosen to set aside a majority of the state trust lands in western Washington, meaning over half of all forested state lands will no longer be managed to support rural economies and generate revenue for trust land beneficiaries as required by law. The lawsuit brought by the beneficiaries and AFRC asks the court to invalidate both plans.