Brief: Senate Committee Considers Bill Ensuring Transparency, Accountability in Leasing of State Trust Lands

The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks today held a hearing on SB 5254, a bipartisan bill to ensure transparency, accountability and public involvement in the leasing of state trust lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

What does the bill do?

SB 5254 ensures that major DNR lease decisions will be subject to approval by the Board of Natural Resources. As introduced, the bill would apply to all leases of state trust lands, with the exception of agriculture and grazing leases, involving more than 250 acres of state trust lands.

The bipartisan legislation is sponsored by Sens. Kevin Van De Wege (D-Sequim), John Braun (R-Centralia), Mark Mullet (D-Issaquah), Ron Muzzall (R-Oak Harbor), Christine Rolfes (D-Bainbridge Island), Keith Wagoner (R-Sedro-Woolley), and Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver).

Why is it necessary?

Last year the DNR rushed to implement its “carbon project” and lease state trust lands to private interests without the approval of the board. Questions have been raised about the DNR’s carbon project that would lease state trust lands to private interests in order to sell carbon offsets on the unregulated voluntary carbon offset markets, effectively allowing polluters to keep polluting at the expense of public schools, counties, fire districts, rural hospitals and other beneficiaries of state trust lands that stand to lose millions of dollars in timber-generated revenue.

The DNR has faced scrutiny and questions about the lack of an open and transparent process and the agency’s relationship with private interests that have partnered with the DNR on the carbon project. Board members have expressed concerns about the nature of agreements the agency reached behind closed doors, and that the project was developed without the approval or knowledge of board members who set management policies on state trust lands.

The carbon project has also drawn scrutiny from both Democratic and Republican legislators. For months the agency ignored requests for more information from legislators including the Democratic chairs of five key legislative committees who requested that the leases be brought before the board for approval.

The BNR is charged with setting the policies that guide how the agency manages the state’s lands and resources and approving all product sales and land transactions involving state trust lands. The board is already required to approve individual timber sales, most of which are less than 100 acres.

The committee hearing and bill are especially timely after a recent investigation into Verra, the world’s leading provider of forest carbon offsets (including to major fossil fuel corporations), revealed most are “phantom credits” and may worsen global warming.

Key Quotes

The DNR, by their own admission, expects these leases will decrease the revenues to the Trust Beneficiaries, to whom they owe a fiduciary obligation. There are short- and long-term implications: first, the loss of near-term harvest levels to meet their Sustainable Harvest targets, and 2nd the longer term impact as these leases expire in 40-50 years and much of the timber on them will have moved into a non-harvestable state, thus diminishing the long-term obligation to the Trusts. There are also questions as to whether they have responsibly analyzed the socio-economic impacts of these leases. But these are issues that should be discussed and decided before the BNR, not by administrative fiat.” – Commissioner Tom Lannen, Skamania County

DNR’s ability to adopt these leases without Board approval stems from a 1958 Board motion and subsequent rule.  The world looked very different in 1958 when Governor Rosellini and the other Board members delegated this authority.  DNR is now engaged in leases for energy projects, mining, major commercial properties, and now perhaps carbon offsets. It is clear we need a policy for today — not 1958 — when there were very different expectations for public involvement and government transparency.” – Heath Heikkila, American Forest Resource Council

Who supports the bill?

In addition to Washington’s forest sector, supporters of the bill for the hearing included: Arny Davis, Lewis County, Treasurer; Russ Pfeiffer-Hoyt, Mount Baker School District #507; Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Olsen; Mason County Commissioner Kevin Shutty; Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Connie Beauvais; Diana Reaume, Quillayute Valley School District; Frank Redmon, Quilcene School District; Josh Weiss, representing Skagit and Lewis Counties, North Olympic Legislative Alliance; Skamania County Commissioner Tom Lannen; Wahkiakum County Commissioner Lee Tischer; Grays Harbor County Commissioner Vicki Raines; Rod Fleck, City of Forks; Brinnon Fire Department and Commission; Chelsea Hajny, Washington Cattlemen’s Association; Logan Endres, Washington State School Directors’ Association; Paul Jewell, Washington State Association of Counties.