On July 21, 2022, the Washington State Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Conservation Northwest v. Franz affirming the trust mandate that applies to Department of Natural Resources (DNR) state trust lands. This is a major legal victory for DNR, public schools, counties, and many other community service providers, and the forest products sector. Ironically, anti-forestry groups are falsely claiming this unequivocal decision is a victory and should lead to radical changes to trust land management.
MYTH: The Supreme Court has redefined the trust mandate to account for broader public interests based on a Constitutional requirement that DNR state trust lands be managed to serve “all the people.”
FACT: The Supreme Court once again affirmed the Washington State Constitution and the Enabling Act of 1889 did in fact establish trusts for the benefit of defined beneficiaries, that the State is subject to the same fiduciary duties applicable to a private trustee, and that a requirement in the State Constitution that the lands be “held in trust for all the people” is exercised through timber harvests that generate revenue to support schools, universities, and other public services that benefit all Washingtonians.
MYTH: The decision gives DNR discretion to manage state trust lands to accommodate the interests and demands of the public, including anti-forestry groups and their members, at the expense of the beneficiaries.
FACT: The Supreme Court has ruled that DNR has a real, enforceable trust mandate to manage state trust lands with an undivided loyalty to the defined beneficiaries. The Court rejected the anti-forestry groups’ claims that DNR should have chosen other competing interests and public viewpoints to further reduce harvest levels at the expense of timber revenue to trust land beneficiaries.
MYTH: The Supreme Court has rejected DNR’s current approach for managing state trust lands as inappropriately seeking to maximize revenue from state trust lands through aggressive timber harvests.
FACT: The Supreme Court dismissed all the allegations made by the anti-forestry groups that DNR’s current timber management practices are inconsistent with the state constitution and inappropriately seek to maximize revenue. DNR’s approach to managing timber harvests on state trust lands is not focused on maximizing revenue. It is focused on successfully, sustainably, and predictably harvesting timber to meet its fiduciary obligation to beneficiaries today and into the future. In fact, DNR as a trust manager has removed from management half of the state trust lands in western Washington under a Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) and other policies to expressly provide greater certainty and predictability for the beneficiaries. The HCP would not be possible if DNR was exclusively focused on maximizing revenue.
MYTH: The Supreme Court found that DNR is not required to sell timber from state trust lands.
FACT: The Constitution and the Enabling Act have never been interpreted to require that trust lands be exclusively managed for timber production. DNR has a fiduciary obligation to manage the lands in a manner that generates revenue for the beneficiaries. The Supreme Court expressly stated that timber harvests enable DNR to make state lands productive, which aligns with its duties as a trustee. Until other uses meet or exceed the revenue generated from sustainable timber harvests on some of the most productive timberlands in the world, DNR has a fiduciary obligation to continue sustainably harvesting timber from state trust lands. State law (RCW 79.10.320) also requires that DNR “shall manage the state-owned lands under its jurisdiction which are primarily valuable for the purpose of forest crops on a sustained-yield basis insofar as compatible with other statutory directives.”