The conservation strategy for the marbled murrelet is at the center of lawsuits filed against the state Department of Natural Resources.

The conservation strategy for the marbled murrelet is at the center of lawsuits filed against the state Department of Natural Resources.

Marbled murrelet plans spark lawsuits

Clallam County taxing districts say too much set aside for bird

FORKS — The city of Forks and two Clallam County junior taxing districts have joined a lawsuit challenging newly adopted state Department of Natural Resources forest management plans.

Joyce-based Clallam County Fire District No. 4, Quillayute Valley School District and Forks are three of 10 plaintiffs named in a Jan. 2 lawsuit filed against DNR and its governing board.

The 38-page complaint alleges that DNR breached its fiduciary duty and violated the state Environmental Policy Act when it removed millions of board feet of timber from the 2015-2024 sustainable harvest calculation and adopted a long-term conservation strategy for the marbled murrelet.

Both plans were approved by the state Board of Natural Resources by 4-2 vote Dec. 3, with Clallam County Commissioner and DNR board member Bill Peach voting no.

DNR manages 1.4 million acres of commercial forestland in trust to support public schools, rural counties and junior taxing districts like fire departments and hospital districts.

“Instead of fulfilling these duties, the Board has chosen to pursue other objectives with these lands in a manner that will dramatically reduce the revenues produced for the trust beneficiaries,” the lawsuit says.

“This action will result in across-the-board budget cuts and reductions of critical public services in rural areas of western Washington. The board’s action will also significantly reduce timber supply for forest products manufacturers who are a mainstay of rural economies.”

Other plaintiffs named in the lawsuit are Concrete School District, Naselle-Grays River School District, Wahkiakum County, Pacific County, Skamania County, Mason County and the American Forest Resource Council.

According to the lawsuit, the sustainable harvest calculation for 2015-2024 will correlate to a 23-percent decrease in revenues to trust beneficiaries.

“Our community still has a significant economic base associated with timber and timber harvesting,” Forks City Attorney/Planner Rod Fleck said in a Tuesday interview.

“There are issues with the way DNR headquarters adopted the murrelet strategy, which is affecting the harvest calculation.”

The sustainable harvest level for timber on state trust lands is set to 4.65 billion board feet for the planning decade, or 465 million board feet per year, which the Department of Natural Resources said would “guarantee a more stable flow of income to the schools, colleges and counties that depend on that revenue.”

Fleck said the sustainable harvest calculation for the following decade is projected to be 419 million board feet per year, down from the 550 million board feet it was prior to 2014.

“In four years time, we’re going to see another drop in about 50 million board feet ever year,” Fleck said Thursday.

Other lawsuits

A similar lawsuit was filed by Skagit County and four Skagit County junior taxing districts Dec. 30.

A coalition of environmental groups sued DNR and its elected commissioner from the opposite side of the spectrum, saying the sustainable harvest calculation and marbled murrelet strategy did not go far enough to protect state forests and the threatened species.

The marbled murrelet is a sea bird that nests in coastal forests.

The Jan. 2 complaint filed by Conservation Northwest, Olympic Forest Coalition, Washington Environmental Council and eight individuals it says the state has broader obligations to all residents beyond maximizing revenue from timber harvest.

It says the approved harvest plans were “based on an erroneous and unconstitutional interpretation of its perceived trust mandate, which unlawfully limited its jurisdiction.”

“The adoption was arbitrary and capricious and illegal, and justifies review by constitutional writ of certiorari,” the environmental groups said.

Less than 2 percent of the murrelet’s population is in Washington, with 94 percent of its population living in Alaska or British Columbia, according to DNR.

The adopted conservation strategy protects 59,000 acres of occupied marbled murrelet sites and 58,000 acres of forestland set aside for the bird, DNR officials said.

Within this protected forestland, there are 78,000 acres of current murrelet habitat.

This is in addition to 90,000 acres of non-revenue-generating DNR forestland that is also suitable habitat.

DNR estimates that in 50 years there will be a combined 272,000 acres of marbled murrelet habitat on DNR-managed state lands.

The lawsuit filed by the Clallam County taxing districts alleges that the murrelet strategy “unnecessarily” sets aside thousands of acres of second- and third-growth forest that the bird cannot use.

It claims that DNR violated the state Environmental Policy Act by failing to properly evaluate and disclose in its environmental impact statements the impacts to public services due to reductions in timber revenue.

“Both the sustainable harvest calculation and murrelet strategy decisions were willful and unreasoning actions, in disregard of the facts and circumstances, and therefore arbitrary and capricious or contrary to law,” according to the lawsuit, which also seeks a constitutional writ of certiorari.

West End impact

Fleck said the new forest management plans have will have greater impacts on Clallam County and the West End’s Olympic Experimental State Forest than other regions in the state.

He said he expected DNR to respond to the lawsuit by early February.

“Then I think the parties have to sit down and chart out their course,” Fleck said in a telephone interview.

“Litigation takes time. The impacts of some of these decisions could start being felt within the two next years.”

Officials with the American Forest Resource Council, or AFRC, said the forest management plans would reduce the annual timber harvests on state trust lands by an estimated 85 million board feet over the next several years.

The December decision by the Board of Natural Resources will cause an annual loss of nearly $30 million in potential revenues to support a variety of public services, according to AFRC.

“Our members have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their Washington facilities, equipment, and the communities where they operate — and they depend on the sustainable source of timber provided by the state trust lands to stay in business,” AFRC President Travis Joseph said in a Jan. 2 statement from the organization.

“These operations support thousands of family-wage jobs in rural Washington communities, and the arbitrary reductions in harvest from state trust lands are the equivalent of the total wood supply needed for at least one of our members’ sawmills.

“In other words, the Board’s decisions will eliminate blue collar jobs and reduce revenue for critical public investments,” Joseph said.

The Quillayute Valley School District was forced to defer the “badly needed replacement” of its 1961 athletic stadium because of uncertainties related to timber revenues and DNR’s “volatile management of the trust,” according to the lawsuit.

Given a lack of timber revenues, Clallam Fire District No. 4 has delayed the replacement of an outdated fire engine, the lawsuit says.

“Forks has a long history as a ‘timber town’ and relies on state trust timber sales to provide local employment, school funds and general county funds,” the lawsuit reads.

“The city of Forks is actively engaged in ensuring the proper management of the state trust land to benefit rural communities and was an intervenor-defendant in litigation related to the past decade’s sustainable harvest calculation.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].

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