Editorial: If a tree falls in a forest, can it build a school?

A court decision and a proposal could help build schools in rural areas, but more help is needed.

Rachel Chesley (left) and Sam Chesley point out some of forested area in late July, 2020, that was identified in a proposed timber sale near Wallace Falls and Gold Bar. The sale of timber on 160 acres was approved that December. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

Rachel Chesley (left) and Sam Chesley point out some of forested area in late July, 2020, that was identified in a proposed timber sale near Wallace Falls and Gold Bar. The sale of timber on 160 acres was approved that December. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald file photo)

By The Herald Editorial Board

It’s not often that a Washington state Supreme Court ruling satisfies both sides of a lawsuit, but last week’s decision favoring the state Department of Natural Resources and its chief, Hilary Franz, in a case brought by environmental groups and others, seems to have done so.

Yet a satisfactory decision for both sides leaves open issues that the state, its officials, lawmakers — and ultimately residents and taxpayers — still will need to confront.

In a unanimous ruling, the state’s high court found for Franz and the agency and affirmed the DNR can continue to manage state trust lands — in particular its forestlands — for the financial benefit of schools and other institutions, including county fire districts, libraries and hospitals, further finding that its policies and practices were “neither unconstitutional nor arbitrary and capricious.”

The agency’s current policies provide “a benefit to the general population by boosting local economies as well as maintaining stronger and better-funded public systems of education and governance,” the ruling said.

At the same time, the ruling made clear that DNR is not required to make maximizing revenue the priority over greater issues of land management, appearing to strengthen the argument that Franz has made in recent years to step up efforts to ensure forest health and protect public lands, including recent efforts to address climate resilience.

While satisfying organizations supporting the timber industry, which relies on DNR timber sales, including the American Forest Resource Council, the decision also was praised by the conservation groups that brought the suit in the first place — including Conservation Northwest and the Washington Environmental Council — for the court’s recognition that management of state trust lands requires a balance of all interests, especially protection of the state trust lands, themselves.

That’s the plan, Franz said in response to the ruling.

“In the face of a rapidly changing climate, we must do everything we can to safeguard public lands and protect our forests. This is why DNR has made climate resilience and long-term sustainable land use a core part of our work, including being a nationwide leader in efforts to restore forest health and conserve forestland and critical habitat across our state,” Franz said in a release.

The DNR manages about 2.4 million acres of forested state trust land for long-term timber production, habitat protection and watershed preservation. Nearly 900,000 acres of forestland — half of that west of the Cascades — is currently managed for conservation; another 130,000 acres of forestlands are protected as natural areas, still leaving significant acreage for sustainable timber production.

Earlier this spring, Franz announced a climate resilience plan that looks to set aside an additional 10,000 acres for lease as carbon credits under the state’s cap-and-invest program, part of the larger Climate Commitment Act.

But even as DNR continues to balance the above concerns for environment with funding of public school construction, it’s clear that even the best management of those lands won’t meet the needs for new schools in the state and have provided a declining percentage of construction funds over the last decade.

Funding from the Common School Trust is down from 3.35 percent to 1.28 percent of total school construction costs in the last 10 years, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The portion just from timber sale revenue is even smaller, shrinking from 2 percent to 0.7 percent, over the same period.

Which is why Superintendent Chris Reykdal, OSPI chief, has proposed a change — announced just two days before the court decision was released — that seeks to prioritize the revenue from timber sales for schools in rural areas, in particular those where timber is being logged.

Reykdal, as part of his 2023-25 capital budget request for next year’s legislative session, wants state lawmakers to correct an unfair distribution of those funds that have disproporitonally gone to better-funded urban and suburban school districts.

“Rural communities in Washington have long generated this revenue through timber harvests and other trust land activities, but are not often the beneficiaries of it,” Reykdal said during a media briefing.

Less than half of the state’s school districts have benefited from the timber revenue, not only because of the drop in that revenue, but because of state law that requires school districts put up matching funds for construction projects. And fewer school districts, especially in rural and smaller districts, have been able to convince voters in those districts to approve funding for remodeled and new schools. Requests for bonds require 60 percent supermajority approval from voters; capital levies require a simple majority.

Reykdal’s proposal calls on the Legislature to endow the matching fund — the School Construction Assistance Program — from other revenue sources, while reserving trust fund revenue for school districts where those revenues are generated.

Never a sure bet, passage of bonds and capital levies for school construction has become more difficult in recent years, perhaps in part because of state lawmakers’ resolution of the state Supreme Court’s mandate in the McCleary case five years ago that required the state to amply fund basic education. Lawmakers were able to come to agreement on a school funding solution that was supposed to reduce an over-reliance on property tax requests from individual districts, but it may have left the impression with some taxpayers that the state had taken on almost all funding responsibility, increasing resentment when districts make their bond and levy requests.

As well, nothing in McCleary addressed issues of funding for school construction, leading to speculation that construction funding issues could prompt the next McCleary-like lawsuit. Late last year, the southwest Washington school district of Wahkiakum filed suit claiming the state had failed in the same constitutional duty cited in McCleary to provide for safe and modern school buildings for all students.

The Supreme Court decision protecting one source of revenue for school construction and Reykdal’s proposal to more fairly allocate that funding will help address some of the inequity, but — as recent bond and capital levy failures in Snohomish County have shown — state lawmakers are facing a new school funding crisis that timber sales alone won’t solve.

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