State trust lands generate high-quality forest products and help fund our public schools.
WHEN Washington was admitted to the Union in 1889, the federal government granted land to support public schools. Our state had the good fortune to be founded during a progressive era when there was a strong belief that government could be a positive force in building a better society.
Our state’s founders felt so strongly about education that they established the Common School Trust to help pay for schools forever. Could you imagine our current dysfunctional U.S. Congress setting up an endowment to help educate children 100 years from now? The actions of our founders weren’t “frontier era,” as a few opponents of the Common School Trust have claimed. They were so far before their time that they are still before our time, 125 years later.
While some other states squandered their trust lands, Washington has the good fortune to still hold 1.8 million acres in trust for our public schools. Under Article IX of the state Constitution, the money the lands make from crops like wheat, grapes or timber goes to help build schools for Washington kids. These funds help build the high-quality classrooms that we need to reduce class sizes and accommodate growth. The need is far greater than local schools can fund solely through bonds.
Since 2000, our state’s school trust lands have earned more than $1 billion of nontax revenue for school construction. The state Supreme Court has wisely ruled that the state must fully fund basic education. School trust revenues are meant to supplement, not replace, basic education funding. Guest columnist Web Hutchins in The Seattle Times recently opined that managing the school trust somehow hinders the Legislature’s duty to fund education. This is like saying that because you earn interest on your bank account, it makes it harder to pay your mortgage.
Currently, when the state removes land from the school trust for non-trust purposes, such as for a natural area preserve, the Legislature is legally required to buy the land from the trust at fair market value. If, as a state, we were to decide to end revenue production from school trust lands, it would cost the state billions to buy out the Common School Trust. If we ever had extra billions in the state budget, that money would be better spent on funding preschool and other educational needs.
Washington’s school trust lands are managed by the State Department of Natural Resources. The agency manages its lands with greater environmental protections than are required by the state’s Forest Practices Act. The lands are managed under a Habitat Conservation Plan to protect habitat of endangered species. The DNR’s Policy for Sustainable Forests prohibits the cutting of old-growth forests.
Well-managed forests contribute to reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Forest products used in buildings continue to sequester carbon for decades — unlike materials such as steel or concrete — while a new crop of trees grows. DNR forests provide locally grown, renewable forest products. Lumber from our sustainable forests is better for the environment than products imported from poorly managed forests.
Our school trust forest lands are managed for sustained yield under a trust mandate that requires that no generation can be favored over any other. These lands provide not only revenue for our public schools, but also wildlife habitat and high-quality forest products.
Let’s not abandon our forests or our school children. Both need us, more than ever.