State Supreme Court Will Interpret: Public Lands Held in Trust for “All the People”

by Conservation Northwest Staff

Conservation Northwest, Washington Environmental Council and Olympic Forest Coalition are pleased that, on March 3, 2021, the Washington Supreme Court granted direct review in Conservation NW, et al. v. Commissioner of Public Lands et al., No.; 99183-9. This historic case asks the court to 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.”

The organizations are urging the court to hold that 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 three million acres of state public lands for the greatest value for all Washingtonians, including both revenue from timber and values derived from our forests such as clean water, tribal treaty rights, outdoor recreation, fire resiliency, carbon sequestration to mitigate climate change, habitat for threatened and endangered species, and other public benefits.

At the same time as advancing this historic appeal, the organizations are also genuinely committed to working with the specific economic beneficiaries to ensure any reforms in how Washington’s state forests are managed will be sustainable, equitable, and fair to the communities that have been historically dependent on the state forests.

“Today, we move a big step closer to clear legal determination of whether Washington’s state public lands may be managed in the best interests of all the people,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest. “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,” said Friedman. “After over 20 years of believing the law says one thing while watching our resources sacrificed under a strained and biased interpretation, I can’t wait for the state Supreme Court to speak on the matter.”

“We are beginning to see unprecedented changes in our state forests, habitats, and watersheds from the climate crisis,” said Connie Gallant, president of the Olympic Forest Coalition. “The revenues for school construction and essential services are important now more than ever because of pandemic deficits. We can no longer afford to sacrifice our forests for short-term revenues. We have to balance the interests of all the people with the ecological and economic imperatives we face. This case will hopefully resolve the legal issues, and that will leave us a clear path to resolve the policy differences, balance our interests, and find a path forward.”

“Washington’s forests are among our state’s greatest assets, providing innumerable cultural, economic, and environmental benefits, said Lisa Remlinger, chief policy officer, Washington Environmental Council. “The Washington State Supreme Court’s decision to grant direct review of this case brings us closer to recognizing the full value and potential of our public lands — an especially important ambition at a time when our climate and communities are in crisis. We stand ready to help develop solutions for management of our public lands that meet the challenges of today, and can weather the inevitable changes to Washington’s climate, population, and economy. By truly managing state lands to benefit all the people, we have an opportunity to support both resilience and economic well-being for rural communities, and a healthy environment for all Washingtonians for generations to come.”