The Washington Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case brought by environmentalists challenging how the Department of Natural Resources manages about 2 million acres of forests.
Led by Conservation Northwest, the plaintiffs are asking the left-leaning court to toss out the department’s historic focus on funding public institutions, especially rural schools and counties, with sustainable timber sales.
The suit claims DNR cuts old-growth forests and plants Douglas fir trees to maximize logging revenue and benefit a “few designated institutions,” while ignoring the state constitution’s requirement to hold the land in trust for “all the people.”
American Forest Resources Council general counsel Lawson Fite said Monday the suit relies on an incomplete reading of the state constitution and pursues a policy that’s not supported by history or law.
“It’s very much an attack on public timber from state lands in Washington,” Fite said.
The suit specifically alleges the Board of Natural Resources in late 2019 authorized too much logging and too little protection for the marbled murrelet, a federally protected bird that nests in old trees.
The forest council and several rural school districts and counties also sued. They claim the board set aside too many acres for murrelets and cut harvests by too much, violating its duty to fund public services.
That lawsuit is pending in Thurston County Superior Court. Conservation Northwest’s lawsuit has already been dismissed. The early dismissal gave environmentalists a chance to get their case to the Supreme Court first.
Justices Steven Gonzalez, Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Sheryl Gordon McCloud and Raquel Montoya-Lewis unanimously agreed March 2 to take the case, bypassing the appeals court. No date has been set for oral arguments.
DNR did not have a comment on the lawsuit Monday.
Conservation Northwest Executive Director Mitch Friedman said in a statement that he “can’t wait for the state Supreme Court to speak on the matter.”
“These lands are a gift that should not have to be squeezed for every dollar when they already benefit us in so many ways, from storing carbon to providing clean water, wildlife habitat and healthy recreation access,” Friedman said.
As a prelude to Washington becoming a state in 1889, Congress granted Washington millions of acres to support public institutions. Beginning in the 1930s, DNR acquired more timberland through tax foreclosures.
The forest board in 2019 reduced harvest levels over the previous decade and set aside 168,000 acres for marbled murrelets. The bird has been seen on 59,000 acres. As trees grow, DNR anticipates setting aside more land for the bird.
The forest council, whose members buy most of the timber cut on DNR land, argues that the board set aside habitat that murrelets will never inhabit.
The council estimated the lower harvest levels will reduce funding for public services over 10 years by 23% or $200 million compared to the previous decade. It warns the reduction will cause a further deterioration in the economies of rural communities.
In contrast, Conservation Northwest alleges DNR has chosen to “operate like a private timber company.”
In its opening brief to the Supreme Court, Conservation Northwest drew a parallel with the Cuevas v. DeRuyter decision, in which the court overturned a 61-year-old law that exempted farmers from paying workers overtime.
Likewise, DNR shouldn’t be allowed to favor “a narrow subset of people,” according to the brief.
In the contrary lawsuit, the “narrow subset of people” is represented by Wahkiakum, Pacific, Skamania and Mason counties, the city of Forks, three rural school districts and one fire district, as well as the forest council, whose members include more than 50 manufacturers and landowners.