State Trust Land Beneficiary Coalition Wins Key Legal Victory in Thurston County

A coalition of Washington state counties, schools, fire districts and others won a key legal victory on Oct. 2 when Thurston County Judge Erik D. Price dismissed a lawsuit filed by anti-forestry groups against the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The anti-forestry groups’ lawsuit sought to undermine the DNR’s fiduciary obligations to manage Washington state trust lands for designated beneficiaries, which provides timber revenue to support county services, K-12 school construction, public safety and other community services.

The ruling is related to the beneficiary coalition’s own legal challenge against the DNR regarding two management plans for state trust lands, which the coalition says violates DNR’s duties and will adversely harm the delivery of critical public services.

The coalition’s lawsuit, filed in Skagit County, alleges the DNR and Board of Natural Resources 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 reduces annual timber harvest levels on state trust lands.

In addition to the coalition’s lawsuit, the anti-forestry groups brought their own case to King County, later transferred to Thurston County, challenging the DNR’s fiduciary responsibility to manage state trust lands. Judge Price dismissed that challenge late last week.

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC), a trade association representing the forest products industry, intervened in the Thurston County litigation as part of the coalition.  AFRC General Counsel Lawson Fite said this case was an attempt to rewrite the Washington Supreme Court’s decision in Skamania County v. State (1984), which ruled that state forest trusts “are real, enforceable trusts that impose upon the State the same fiduciary duties applicable to private trustee.”

“Judge Price’s ruling affirms that Skamania is clear: The Department of Natural Resources has a clear mandate to manage its state trust lands for its beneficiaries,” Fite said. “The beneficiary coalition will continue to make its case in Skagit County that the agency’s Sustainable Harvest Calculation and Long Term Conservation Strategy both fail to meet this clear standard.”

The coalition says both plans serve to 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.  Further, they say the plans will unlawfully cause an annual loss of nearly $30 million in potential revenues to support a variety of public services. More information on the litigation can be found here.