Comment: Suit threatens state trust lands’ balanced interests

Timber harvests on these lands produce jobs and revenue for schools while protecting the environment.

By Matt Comisky / For The Herald

More than 2 million acres of working forests managed by the state of Washington provide a sustainable and continuous supply of timber, clean water for salmon, habitat for wildlife, family-wage jobs, and non-tax revenue to support public education and community services.

All of these benefits are at risk if a legal attack against these working forests is successful in the Washington state Supreme Court this fall.

The case, Conservation Northwest vs. Hilary Franz — the state’s public lands commissioner — is an attempt to undermine the Department of Natural Resource’s fiduciary responsibility to manage these working forests — known as state trust lands — to provide timber and generate revenues for defined beneficiaries, which include K-12 public schools, universities, fire districts, libraries, hospitals and other community service providers.

The agency’s trust mandate is embedded in the state constitution, and state and federal laws, including Congress’ 1889 Enabling Act that brought Washington and three other states into the United States. It was confirmed in the state Supreme Court’s 1984 Skamania decision, where the court held that the imposition of the trust by the Enabling Act was a limit on the power of the Sstate and “created specifically to benefit certain named beneficiaries.”

Surprisingly, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case even after a Thurston County judge upheld the DNR’s trust mandate in litigation last year.

Timber harvests on these lands generate nearly $200 million annually and support jobs and economic activity in rural communities. As working forests, they are managed under modern forest practice rules and a State Lands Habitat Conservation Plan, ensuring a continuous timber supply along with recreation, clean water and habitat for wildlife.

Fortunately, counties, educators, labor and business groups have come together to defend these trusts and working forests and prevent the kind of non-management that has plagued federal lands for the past 30 years, leading to devastating wildfires and toxic smoke. They have filed separate legal briefs with the state Supreme Court ahead of oral arguments set for Oct. 21, defending the trust mandate that has been the law of the land for more than a century.

Ending the state’s mandate to manage state trust lands would not only eliminate much-needed funding for public school construction and community services, but it would also lead to job losses and business closures in rural communities that have suffered since federal timber harvests dramatically declined a few decades ago.

It would also subvert the state Legislature’s recent passage of historic forest legislation meant to bolster wildfire response and forest management activities, including sustained timber harvests on DNR trust lands. In its friend-of-the-court brief, the Association of Washington Business wrote that “the raid on the land trusts would abandon Washington’s working forests with complete disregard for forest health, wildfire mitigation risk, and the economy of our rural communities.”

Further, ending the trust mandate would undercut Washington state’s efforts to address climate change. It would increase our dependency on importing wood products from other countries, many with weaker environmental and forest practice regulations. It would also increase our carbon footprint because meeting our own demand for wood products would require transporting more raw materials and wood products from hundreds or thousands of miles away.

As working forests, DNR trust lands provide our everyday essentials and help fund essential services while protecting important conservation values. The state Supreme Court should reject this attack so we can continue to enjoy the many benefits these forests provide.

Matt Comisky is Washington state manager for the American Forest Resource Council. He has worked in the forest products sector as a forest engineer, forester and policy analyst for nearly 25 years in the state for public and private land managers. He currently oversees work for AFRC related to state Department of Natural Resources-managed trust lands and U.S. Forest Service lands.

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