Suits flying over DNR sustainable yield, murrelet habitat plans


January 9, 2020

Wahkiakum County, the Naselle/Grays River Valley School District (N/GRVSD) and other entities on Dec. 30 filed suit against the state Department of Natural Resources over the state marbled murrelet habitat management plan.

And on Thursday, individuals and environmental groups filed their own suit against the DNR over habitat management and timber harvest programs, arguing that the agency hadn't done enough to preserve habitat for the endangered seabird.

Besides Wahkiakum County and the Naselle/Grays River school district, other plaintiffs in the first action include Pacific, Skamania and Mason counties, the Concrete and Quillayute Valley school districts, the City of Forks, the Clallam County Fire District No. 4, and the American Forest Resources Council. Defendants are the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources and the Washington Board of Natural Resources (Board).

The complaint, filed in Skagit County, basically alleges that the DNR and Board of Natural Resources failed to fulfil their fiduciary responsibility to manage timber land trusts for the benefit of the beneficiaries of the trusts.

They claim that the board violated state law in its development and adoption of a Sustainable Harvest Calculation (SHC) and a Long Term Conservation Strategy (LTCS) for the Marbled Murrelet.

Their complaint says the two plans would reduce harvest levels by 15 percent and cause a potential annual loss of $30 million to the trusts. The complaint states that the Board voted to set a sustainable harvest level of 5.97 billion board feet for the 2004-2015 planning decade.

"In 2006, as a result of changes in DNR policy and as a part of a litigation settlement, the 2004-2015 sustainable harvest level was revised downward to 5.5 billion board feet," the complaint states. "The Dec. 2, 2019, decadal sustainable harvest level dropped to 4.27 billion board feet. . . a more than 25 percent reduction over the previous decade's level. Using conservative timber valuations, this represents a reduction of over $200 million in trust beneficiary payments over the course of the planning decade.

"The reduction in the sustainable harvest level has not been the result of prior overharvesting of trust land, nor the absence of available timber on the landscape. Instead, DNR has dropped the sustainable harvest level as a result of its own failure to prudently manage the forest lands with an undivided loyalty to the interests of the trust beneficiaries."

The plaintiffs also argue that the DNR and Board violated their duties by picking Alternate H for their Marbled Murrelet Management Plan instead of Alternate B.

According to the complaint almost all the trust forests are plantation forests and don't contain old, large trees needed for murrelet nesting. The suitable habitat has already been set aside for endangered species, and the plantation forests won't develop suitable nesting structures during the life of the management plan. Alternative B included those forests. The Board adopted Alternative H, however, which sets aside additional acreage that is four times the necessary area identified in Alternative B.

"The adoption of Alternative H constitutes a breach of the Board's fiduciary obligations to the plaintiffs," the complaint says, because it constitutes a use of trust assets for a purpose that is inconsistent with the trust's mandate."

The complaint also claims the agency violated the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) by not providing adequate economic analysis of the conservation strategy and sustainable harvest calculation.

"At present, county plaintiffs are unable to provide the levels or services they wish to provide, and any increases in timber revenues would similarly increase the level of public services that could be provided," the complaint says. "The Murrelet Strategy will have a compounding effect on the revenues of several of the plaintiffs, including most notably Pacific and Wahkiakum counties and will further depress their ability to deliver essential public services.

The plaintiffs ask the court to invalidate the two plans and remand them to the agency, with direction that the agency recalculate the sustainable harvest calculation and that the board adopt Alternative H for the murrelet plan.

A suit filed January 2 in King County by individuals and environmental groups also asks the court to remand the sustainable harvest calculation and murrelet management plan back to the DNR for further consideration.

The plaintiffs in the second suit, Conservation Northwest; Olympic Forest Coalition; Washington Environmental Council; Holly Koon And Max Duncan, a married couple;

Mike Town and Meg Town, a married couple; Linda Lorenz, an individual; Peter Bahls, an individual; Scott Wallace, an individual, and Marcy Golde, an individual, ask "the Court to declare that the Washington State Constitution, through its mandate that ‘all the public lands granted to the state are held in trust for all the people,’ requires the State to not only manage forests to produce revenue from timber harvest, but also to promote the broader public interest," the complaint says.

"With control of over 3 million acres of federally granted lands, and 546,000 acres of lands transferred from counties, the State has the opportunity and obligation to transition from an antiquated system which strictly prioritizes generating revenue from logging to an approach that balances commercial logging with promotion of forest health, diverse regional economies, and the vast carbon sequestration value of some of the world’s most productive forests.

"This better, more balanced approach would allow the State to manage public lands for the public interest, as the plain language of the state constitution requires."

Wahkiakum and other timber counties are pursuing legislation that would expand county timber holdings so they could supplement other revenues.

Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren commented Tuesday at the board of commissioners meeting that environmental groups oppose the DNR's fiduciary obligation to manage the timber trusts.

"They recognize the trusts as public trusts," he said. "No, they're county trusts. THey think they own the land and can control it.

"The only way to solve this is to get out from control of the DNR."

Also, in a January 2 release from the American Forestry Resources Council, Cothren commented, “Wahkiakum County is participating in this effort to hold the Department of Natural Resources accountable. “Bottom line: Our county is still losing around one million dollars per year in lost revenue because of Marbled Murrelet long term conservation strategy.”


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