The McCleary decision highlights the need to better fund public education without reliance on timber sales.
SHOULD Washington clear-cut public forests to fund new K-12 schools?
It seems unthinkable that our smart, outdoor-loving citizenry would condone clear-cutting thousands of acres of trees each year to help fund public education.
But we do.
Few citizens know it, but an archaic article in our 1889 Constitution requires the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to log our 2.1-million-acre, school-trust forests to help pay construction costs for K-12 schools and universities, and cover certain expenses in timber counties.
The DNR interprets its mission as an indisputable mandate to manage public forests for maximum revenue for school construction, as well as for conservation. This untenable policy creates a false choice between serving educational needs and environmental interests. Not surprisingly, clear-cutting consistently trumps conservation.
Washington should dismantle the DNR mandate because it fails any reasonable cost-benefit test. This revenue-driven policy imperils our state’s majestic forests, wildlife and sacred salmon rivers, and in return provides scant cash for school construction.
In 2014, for instance, DNR timber sales contributed $120 million to Washington’s $7.6 billion K-12 budget. In context, $120 million barely buys one new 4A high school.
The state Supreme Court’s historic McCleary directive offers legislators a singular opportunity to eliminate the frontier-era DNR mandate from the new K-12 funding system they are crafting. Indeed, by demanding that we build our children’s schools with “regular and dependable tax sources,” the court’s directive ostensibly requires it.
As Thomas Ahearne, the lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the McCleary case, observes: “McCleary confirmed the state’s constitutional duty to amply fund not only K-12 operating costs but construction costs as well, a duty that to date has been neglected with a non-ample hodgepodge of timber, lottery and local funding that is neither dependable nor regular.”
Until the 1980s, DNR timber revenues funded more than 60 percent of school-construction costs. But volatile lumber markets, our population explosion and harvest-impinging environmental regulations have cut the DNR’s share of costs to just 15 percent since 2002, according to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
The DNR’s drift toward irrelevance has forced local jurisdictions to offer increasingly expensive capital-bond votes to cover the balance. Students suffer most in lower-income districts, such as Highline, Selah and Pasco, where these votes often fail. In 2012, nearly $1 billion in bonds failed statewide.
When schools go unbuilt, kids get stacked into classrooms like salmon beneath blocked falls. And learning is compromised.
Meanwhile, Washington’s wild fish populations are collapsing — habitat loss due to logging is a primary cause. Only 10 percent of Puget Sound’s wild sea-run fish are left, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service, and most surviving runs are on the endangered species list, including the Stillaguamish steelhead.
Many factors decimate fish stocks, but logging-caused flooding, slides and sedimentation of spawning gravel pose grave threats to our steelhead and salmon, totems of Northwest identity. Nonetheless, despite these threats, DNR thinking compels risky clear-cutting.
In fact, the Washington Forest Legal Center reports that the DNR currently faces legal and local opposition to logging proposals that endanger salmon strongholds like the North Fork Skykomish and Methow rivers, where the agency seeks salvage timber from fragile watersheds scorched by last summer’s fires “for the benefit to the (school) trust,” according to a DNR manager.
And last year, DNR head Peter Goldmark authorized clear-cutting on prime University of Washington trust land near Forks, even though in 2008 the DNR itself deemed it “key habitat” for the marbled murrelet, the endangered, quixotic seabird. His explanation?
“First and foremost, our major responsibility is a fiduciary interest to supply revenue for the trust beneficiaries.”
Despite such decisions, the agency’s 2014 harvests garnered the UW a mere $3 million and just $120 million for our state’s 295 K-12 districts.
Now is the time for citizens and legislators to cut this obsolete mandate from the emergent McCleary plan and fund schools with taxes, not timber.
Let’s free the DNR from profit-driven decision-making in the public’s forests and empower its talented professionals to wisely log and creatively manage our forests and fisheries in accordance with Washington’s predominant 21st century outdoors ideals: conservation, restoration and preservation.
If we don’t, we must ask ourselves: Are the tiny tax savings covered by DNR logging for schools worth the risk of leaving future generations a Stillaguamish River without steelhead and Puget Sound without salmon?