Diverse Groups, Counties Defend Timber Management on State Trust Lands in Washington State Supreme Court Case

Counties, educators, labor and business groups and others are defending timber management on state-owned working forests against a legal attack in the Washington State Supreme Court.

The entities filed separate amicus curiae briefs in Conservation Northwest v. Hilary Franz, a case that would undermine the Washington Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) fiduciary duty to manage these working forests, known as state trust lands.  These lands generate funding for beneficiaries including public schools, universities, fire districts, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.

The DNR manages over 2 million acres of state trust lands to produce sustainable timber supplies and generate long-term revenues for defined beneficiaries.  The agency’s trust mandate is embedded in the state constitution, and state and federal laws, including Congress’ 1889 Enabling Act that brought Washington and three other states into the United States. It was confirmed in a previous Washington Supreme Court ruling (County of Skamania v. State) in 1984.

Sustainable timber harvests on these lands generate nearly $200 million annually and support jobs and economic activity in rural communities.  As working forests, DNR state trust lands are managed under modern forest practice rules and a State Lands Habitat Conservation Plan, ensuring a continuous timber supply along with recreation, clean water, and habitat for wildlife.

The Washington State Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after a Thurston County judge upheld the DNR’s trust mandate in litigation last year.  The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), a regional trade association representing the forest products sector, is intervening in the case along with counties and other beneficiaries of these DNR working forests.

“The trust mandate contributes to the social and economic well-being of communities throughout Washington,” said AFRC Legal Counsel Sara Ghafouri.  “Washington public schools, counties and other community service agencies depend on revenues generated by DNR trust lands.  Our industry also depends on the sustainable source of timber provided by the state trust lands to stay in business, support thousands of family-wage jobs, and produce climate-friendly wood products.”

“That’s why we are working together to vigorously defend the management of these working forests so they can continue to provide many different benefits to the public now and into the future.”

In its amicus curiae brief, the Washington State School Directors’ Association, the association representing the interests of Washington’s 1,477 elected school board members, wrote that state trust lands provide an important source of funding for public school construction across the state:

“Since 1889, these lands have been held in trust by Washington for the benefit and support of its common schools. The Association and its members have a strong interest in ensuring these common school trust lands continue to be held in trust for the benefit of Washington’s common schools and the students they serve.”

The Washington State Association of Counties, which represents all 39 of Washington’s counties, wrote in its amicus curiae brief that the delivery of essential public services is at stake:

“Of Washington’s 22 million acres of forest, the State holds in trust about 2.1 million for public schools, universities, timberland counties, and other beneficiaries designated by state and federal statutes. In the last 25 years, those ‘State Trust Lands’ have generated over $4.3 billion in revenue for the beneficiaries. Counties and other public entities critically rely on that income to fund essential services like firefighting, health care, and education.’

In its amicus curiae brief, the Association of Washington Business wrote that undermining the state’s trust mandate would harm rural communities and health of Washington State’s forests:

“The fiduciary duty of DNR is to ensure it will provide revenue to beneficiaries and sustain certain fiber supply from state timberlands …  The raid on the land trusts would abandon Washington’s working forests with complete disregard for forest health, wildfire mitigation risk, and the economy of our rural communities.”

Representing more than 50,000 Machinists Union members statewide, The Washington Council of Machinists warned in its amicus curiae brief that the state will lose much-needed revenues and family-wage jobs if the lawsuit is successful:

“If CNW’s short-sighted challenge and associated rhetoric win the day, not only will revenues from sales of the managed timber cease to be available for Beneficiary Respondents and the communities who rely upon them for education and other public services—but jobs with benefits and fair wages that sustain our rural communities are at risk as well.”

The State of Montana, which was granted statehood through the same 1889 Enabling Act, filed an amicus curiae brief through its Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) in which it wrote:

“The trust themes reflected throughout the Omnibus Enabling Act and in Montana’s constitution, legislation and case law discussed above share innumerable commonalities with Washington’s Constitution, legislation and case law.  Montana case law establishes that federal lands granted to Montana through the Enabling Act created a trust to benefit schools… Pursuant to this trust, the trustee is under a duty to act solely in the interest of the beneficiaries as to matters involving trust assets. This duty is a duty of undivided loyalty and is the bedrock of the trust relationship.” 

The case will be heard by the Supreme Court in Olympia on October 21.