Washington State Forests at the State Supreme Court

Washington State Forests at the State Supreme Court

Conservation Northwest / Oct 22, 2021 / Work Updates

Our attorneys argued before WA’s Supreme Court that State Forests must be managed “for all the people”

By Paula Swedeen, Policy Director

In a case decades in the making, on Thursday our attorneys argued before the State Supreme Court that Washington’s State Forests must be managed “for all the people”, as our State Constitution directs.

You can read more about our historic case in articles from KUOW and NW Public Broadcasting, in our news release, and in my new blog post:

What could Washington State Forest management look like for “All the People”?


State forests like this one near the Nooksack River provide habitat for marbled murrelets, fishers, elk, salmon and many other species, as well as opportunities for outdoor recreation. Photo: Chase Gunnell

Undivided loyalty to the trusts

Presently, the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) follows a policy of “undivided loyalty” to specific trusts supporting schools and other public entities; prioritizing logging and other revenue generation (with few exceptions) over all the other diverse values provided by these state public lands—from access for outdoor recreation and habitat for fish and wildlife, to carbon sequestration to combat climate change, and tribal treaty rights.

And this is despite the fact that revenues from state trust lands provide a minimal share of funding for programs such as the Common School Construction Fund; a mere one to six percent in recent years.

“This is not the future of school construction. It just isn’t,” said Chris Reykdal, Washington State Superintendent of Public Education, at a Board of Natural Resources meeting. Therefore, he said, state trust funds would be put to better use to protect wildlife, habitat, and industries and counties that will feel the effects of a changing climate.

With the Washington Environmental Council, Olympic Forest Coalition, and several local residents, our case, Conservation NW, et al. v. Commissioner of Public Lands et al., urges the Court to correct these flawed policies and interpret the plain terms of the Washington State Constitution providing that “all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people.” [ARTICLE XVI]

Along with prominent legal scholars, we believe the plain terms “for all the people” and Washington’s unique federal land grant history authorize and require the State and Commissioner of Public Lands to manage these state public lands for the greatest value for all Washingtonians.

For more than 20 years, Conservation Northwest has been working to protect and conserve Washington’s State Forests.

From our Loomis Forest Fund in 1999, which raised more than $16.5 million to buy permanent protections for 25,000 acres of state trust lands critical as habitat for endangered lynx; through our successful efforts to protect the beloved forest around Blanchard Mountain and Oyster Dome in the Chuckanuts near Bellingham; to our ongoing collaboration with area residents, scientists, timber industry representatives and agency leaders on the Commissioner of Public Lands’ Marbled Murrelet Solutions Table, focused on finding the right management balance for the lush forests of southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula.

In all these efforts, DNR’s prioritization of revenue generation over all the other important values provided by these state public lands has been a barrier to a more sustainable, equitable and climate-responsive future for Washington’s forests.

Now, we see a monumental opportunity to change the paradigm for these state public lands.

As I recently argued in an op-ed in The Seattle Times along with my colleague Rachel Baker, changing the trust mandate for Washington’s State Forests and other public lands managed by DNR does not have to harm rural communities, school funding, the timber industry, or other trust beneficiaries.

In fact, extending timber harvest rotations on state lands to longer cycles, and managing to support the diverse values of these forests for climate resilience, critical habitat, clean air and water, and recreation access, can have net benefits for local communities, schools and residents as well as all Washingtonians today and future generations tomorrow.

The recording of yesterday’s oral arguments prepared by our attorneys Wyatt Golding from Ziontz Chestnut Law Firm and Peter Goldman of the Washington Forest Law Center is available here.

The State Supreme Court is expected to rule on our case sometime in mid-2022, and we’ll keep you updated on any new developments.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll join us in calling for a new path forward for Washington’s State Forests and other public lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources.

We have a vision for the future of state land management that results in more economic prosperity. This vision goes hand in hand with a more resilient ecological foundation upon which we all depend.

Thank you for your support of our work for State Forests, and so much more.

Natural stands of trees on the Capitol State Forest near Olympia. Photo: Paula Swedeen