Two more lawsuits have been filed against the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) over its plans for state-managed timber lands, further clouding the future of the state’s forests and the timber money that helps support rural communities throughout Western Washington.
The newly filed lawsuits are led by a timber trade group and an environmental coalition. A previous lawsuit was filed on Monday by Skagit County over the state’s sustainable timber-harvest level. Proceeds from timber sales have historically benefited counties, the public-school system and local taxing agencies in rural areas, such as school, fire, hospital and library districts.
The flurry of lawsuits comes a month after DNR approved plans for reduced timber harvest on state lands and a long-term conservation plan for the marbled murrelet, a seabird federally listed under the Endangered Species Act that needs mature trees to raise its young.
The long-awaited plans pleased few stakeholders and the three lawsuits, which attack DNR’s work from divergent perspectives, reflect a bitter divide in how the parties think Washington’s forests should be operated. The three complaints will push a messy political fight into a tangle of litigation that could take years to sort out.
Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has said she hoped to avoid a lawsuit and believed DNR had balanced protection of the endangered marbled murrelet with what she views as a requirement to produce as much revenue as is sustainable to local communities where state timber is sold for logging. DNR projects five decades of declining timber harvests on state-managed lands, something Franz has said is a chief concern.
“If the commissioner’s objective was not to end up in court, she failed miserably,” said Rod Fleck, the city attorney and planner for the town of Forks.
Forks joined four timber-dependent counties, local school districts, a fire district and the timber trade organization American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) in filing its lawsuit Thursday in Skagit County Superior Court, saying DNR’s reduction of planned timber harvest violates the agency’s financial obligation as a trustee to maximize proceeds to counties and other beneficiaries from timber sales.
They argue the DNR’s modeling did not prioritize beneficiaries, that the agency used low-quality inventory data and that it did not communicate well enough so that counties and local tax districts could fully understand the financial impacts of the agency’s plans.
The lawsuit also argues that DNR did not adequately explore a plan to conserve less acreage for the marbled murrelet, which would have provided more land for cutting, and therefore, more revenue.
“DNR is doing things that won’t help the murrelet but will cause impacts to rural communities throughout Washington,” said Lawson Fite, general counsel for AFRC.
The plans DNR selected will likely cause Naselle-Grays River Valley School District, a plaintiff, to lay off teachers due to reduced timber revenue, the complaint says. Because of uncertain timber funding, the Quillayute Valley School District No. 402 won’t be able to replace the district’s 1961 athletic stadium which “is at the end of its useful life.”
Meanwhile, an environmental coalition, including the Washington Environmental Council, the Olympic Forest Coalition, Conservation Northwest and several individuals, filed a separate lawsuit Thursday in King County Superior Court, saying DNR’s management of timber lands does not adequately serve local communities or the public schools that benefit from timber sales.
It also argues the state has broader obligations to all Washington residents beyond maximizing revenue from commercial harvest.
“The fundamental system for how we’re supposed to be funding these communities is broken,” said Nick Abraham, a spokesman for the Washington Environmental Council.
Healthy forests can benefit water quality, mitigate climate change as sinks for carbon and reduce landslide risk, along with other environmental benefits, Abraham said.
DNR’s belief that it must focus narrowly on maximizing revenue to counties and other beneficiaries from timber sales is mistaken, the environmental groups’ complaint says. Instead, it argues the state should ensure forests are also benefiting the public, broadly.
“We shouldn’t be using clear cuts to build classrooms,” Abraham said, adding that for rural communities, “there needs to be a new way to support them.”
Like Washington, the state of Oregon has also been debating the purpose of its state-managed forest lands.
Last fall, 14 counties won a $1 billion lawsuit against Oregon state, after a jury agreed that their communities had been deprived of revenue for decades as the state limited logging. State officials plan to appeal, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting.
The histories and legal arguments differ, but the stakes are high in both states.