The Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney filed a lawsuit Monday over the state’s falling sustainable timber-harvest level, setting up a legal fight over the future of the state’s forests and the timber money that helps support rural communities across Western Washington.

The complaint, filed Monday in Skagit County Superior Court, says the State Department of Natural Resources’ plan to lower logging-harvest levels on state-managed timber lands, which was adopted in early December, breaches the state’s financial duty to its trust beneficiaries, including the county.

“The numbers are going down dramatically,” said Will Honea, the senior deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County, referring to harvest levels and expected revenue from state-managed timber lands in Skagit County. “We’re presented with an incredibly confusing report on what’s going to happen in the future.”

Timber harvest on state-managed lands, which helps fund county governments and schools, is expected to decline for decades, a trend that could stress timber-dependent communities and has state officials calling for transformation.

The complaint tees up what could be a messy legal battle involving the state, counties, environmental groups and timber interests over the future of these state-managed lands and how they provide for rural communities.

The dispute’s roots go back to the Great Depression, when counties in Western Washington received many acres of foreclosed, clear-cut timber land as the economy floundered and some private landowners stopped paying taxes.

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The counties gave the state the responsibility to manage the land, a job handled today the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Proceeds from selling timber to logging companies go to the counties and their smaller local taxing districts, like fire, school, library and hospital districts.

In parts of rural Washington, timber sales help keep the lights on at these core institutions. DNR itself balances its budget with timber revenues.

The Board of Natural Resources sets 10-year plans for timber harvest, based on complicated computer modeling. In recent decades, the sustainable-harvest calculation has dropped, in part from historical logging of older trees in the 1970s and 1980s and federal requirements to conserve endangered animals like the spotted owl and the marbled murrelet.

“You see the echoes of those decisions and historical logging history in our inventory today,” said Andrew Hayes, DNR’s forest-resources division manager. Hayes said DNR expects sustainable-harvest levels to drop for the next five decades.

The state manages 84,628 acres of forest lands in Skagit County, according to the court complaint. Logging on these lands from 2009 through 2018 produced $76.4 million to the county and its smaller taxing agencies, the complaint says.

Honea said he expects the drop in harvest levels will cause steep declines in revenue for some local taxing districts in Skagit County. Some of these institutions could see 50% near-term reductions in harvest, according to the complaint.

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Skagit County wanted the Board of Natural Resources to delay adopting its plan for several months so the county could hire a contractor to review DNR’s modeling and better understand its financial implications.

Honea said DNR must explain its assets and finances to Skagit County and other trust beneficiaries.

If beneficiaries don’t understand, “then you are wrong,” Honea said.

When the board set its 10-year sustainable-harvest plan it also adopted a habitat-conservation plan for the endangered marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests in the branches of older, coastal trees.

The Skagit County lawsuit is not challenging DNR’s murrelet decision, which had some impact on overall harvest levels.

“We don’t want to get in a big environmental fight over an [Endangered Species Act]-listed species,” Honea said.

In response to the lawsuit, Angus Brodie, DNR’s deputy supervisor for state uplands, said in a statement that the agency would establish a technical advisory committee with a county representative when it sets future sustainable-harvest calculations.

Brodie added that the Board of Natural Resources in 2004 adopted policies that directed DNR to generate more “upfront revenue” for communities like Skagit County. Those policies were supported by the county in 2004, Brodie’s statement said.

“This resulted in more revenue for beneficiaries at the time, but the trade-off of this decision is that harvest levels will now go down across Western Washington as harvested forests regrow,” Brodie said.

The harvest levels could face more legal scrutiny, if the timber industry, environmental groups and other counties also sue.

Legal wrangling could postpone or endanger state officials’ visions for state lands.

When the Board of Natural Resources set timber-harvest marks in early December, state Superintendent Chris Reykdal called for a transformation of how forests and timber funds are used as the climate changes.

Public Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, who heads DNR, has said she hopes to explore new sources of revenue on state-managed lands, such as carbon markets.

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Franz has convened a “solutions table” to explore ways to soften impacts on rural communities and search for new economic opportunities.

Honea said Skagit County is interested in carbon-sequestration projects but says conversations about carbon markets have been “vague” and the county views state officials’ plans with some skepticism.

Correction: Information in this article, published on Jan. 1 was corrected Jan. 2. A previous version of the story mischaracterized to whom attorney Will Honea said the Department of Natural Resources needs to better explain its finances and assets. Honea said trustees have an obligation to fully explain their finances and assets to trust beneficiaries.