Challenging Timber Management on DNR Land

Reprinted from American Resource Council – October

Washington State Supreme Court Holds Oral Argument in Case Challenging Timber Management on DNR Trust Lands

On October 21, 2021 the Washington State Supreme Court held oral argument in Conservation Northwest et al. v. Commissioner Franz et al.—one of the most important cases to be heard in recent history regarding trust lands managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The case is the most recent attempt by anti-forestry groups to undermine DNR’s fiduciary duty to manage these working forests that generate funding for beneficiaries including public schools, universities, fire districts, libraries, hospitals, and other community services.
The agency’s “trust mandate” is embedded in the state’s Constitution and Congress’ 1889 Enabling Act, which brought Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota into statehood. This trust mandate has been confirmed in a long history of Washington Supreme Court cases, including its 1984 ruling in County of Skamania v. State, which held that the State has a duty of undivided loyalty to the trust beneficiaries and a duty to manage trust assets prudently.
The Washington Supreme Court agreed to hear this matter after a Thurston County Superior Court Judge dismissed Conservation Northwest’s case given that DNR’s trust mandate is owed to specific beneficiaries, not “all the people.” Counties, educators, labor and business groups, and even the State of Montana filed separate amicus curiae briefs before the Washington Supreme Court defending timber management on trust lands.

The question presented before the Washington Supreme Court is whether the state is required to manage trust lands for “all the people” under Article 16, Section 1 of the Washington State Constitution. Wyatt Golding argued on behalf of Conservation Northwest, Martha Wehling argued on behalf of the State, and Elaine Spencer argued on behalf of the Defendant-Intervenor Beneficiary/AFRC coalition.

Conservation Northwest argued that this case is one of first impression and that Article 16, Section 1’s use of the phrase “for all the people” means that state trust lands should not be managed solely for specific beneficiaries, like public schools, but instead should be managed for each and every Washingtonian. Conservation Northwest argued that DNR currently manages these lands for the purpose of maximizing revenue over other interests such as recreation, wildlife, and climate resiliency.

The State and Beneficiary/AFRC coalition explained how the framework of the Enabling Act required that these lands be managed for specific trust beneficiaries. The State has generated revenue from these trust lands for institutions such as public schools for more than a century. The Beneficiary/AFRC Coalition also explained how these trust lands already support outdoor recreation, protect endangered species, and address climate change and are managed with some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the world.

Overall, only a few justices asked questions during oral argument—with Justices Stephens, McCloud, and Montoya-Lewis being the most active. Although more questions were asked of Conservation Northwest, it is hard to determine where the court is leaning given that many justices did not ask any questions. The Washington State Supreme Court typically issues decisions 6-7 months after oral argument. We anticipate a decision by April or May 2022.