Jul. 22—Washington state is not constitutionally obligated to harvest forests or maximize revenue on state land, the Washington Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
For decades, the Department of Natural Resources harvested state forests to fund grade schools and universities based on an understanding of the state constitution, federal stipulations and legal precedent that land entrusted to the state must be used to maximize revenue and support public institutions.
But the court said this week the state isn't required to do either, a pivotal ruling that gives agency officials and lawmakers more discretion when interpreting the state constitution's policy on managing state forests.
While the court ruled in favor of the state, conservationists hailed the decision as a towering victory that paves the way for the state to maintain public forests in a way that takes greater account of endangered species, habitat loss, unemployment and climate change.
"That's what we were looking for, is that flexibility to now have a broader policy discussion of different ways to manage [Department of Natural Resources] lands," said Paula Swedeen, policy director of Conservation Northwest, an environmental advocacy organization.
The state Supreme Court's majority opinion, written by Justice G. Helen Whitener, said the use of revenue generated by logging public lands may be constitutionally protected, but it's not the only way to manage public land for the benefit of "all people," as the state constitution states.
"There appear to be myriad ways [the Department of Natural Resources] could choose to generate revenue from the state and forest board lands or otherwise put them to use for the benefit of the enumerated beneficiaries," the state Supreme Court's majority opinion stated.
In Conservation Northwest v. Commissioner of Public Lands, conservationists challenged the underlying assumptions of the state's management of land entrusted to Washington when it became a state in the late 19th century.
Conservation NW, the Washington Environmental Council, Olympic Forest Coalition and eight individuals argued the state's prioritization of timber sales undercuts its other obligations to the public, namely efforts to counteract climate change, wildfires and land erosion. The lawsuit addressed two Department of Natural Resources resolutions concerning the protection of marbled murrelets — a small seabird found commonly along the northern Pacific Coast — and sustainable timber harvests on state and county lands.
The same lawsuit called for the court to interpret the state constitution's language on public lands. The constitution states "All public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all people."
The complaint argued using revenue from logging on public land to support certain projects does not reflect the interests of all people, and the state should instead manage the land in a way that reflects the growing need for sustainable jobs, climate resilience, salmon recovery and habitat restoration.
The state agency contended it was acting on legal precedent.
The court held Thursday that the state has obligations to manage the land according to the Omnibus Enabling Act of 1889, in which the federal government entrusted the state with approximately 3 million acres of forested territory "for the support of common schools" and other public institutions.
Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz said the ruling gives her agency more leeway in how it achieves that.
"I also recognize that in the face of a rapidly changing climate, we must do everything we can to safeguard public lands and protect our forests," Franz said in a statement.
The state and Legislature "just need to generate revenue somehow, but they have all kinds of discretion that they didn't have yesterday," said Peter Goldman, founding director of the Washington Forest Law Center, an environmental nonprofit based in the state. "We lost the battle, but we won the war."
The tethering of public schools to timber revenue has long been a heated controversy in Washington.
Earlier this week, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal put forward recommendations to decouple the state's K-12 Common School Trust from funding for public school construction.
Currently, revenue from timber sales and leasing on roughly 1.8 million acres of public land is put into the fund. Schools have become less reliant on this revenue over the past decade — timber sales alone accounted for 0.7% of total school construction expenditure in 2021, compared to 2% in 2012.
Revenue from timber is often generated in rural communities but spent on more urban areas.
Reykdal proposed the Washington Legislature use other sources of funding, including general obligation bonds or cash, to decouple trust lands from school construction.
(c)2022 The Seattle Times
Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.