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Protecting the environment by providing legal services for forest cases of statewide significance.

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Skagit Co. v. State of Washington

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This case addresses the lawfulness of a Washington State statute that sought to protect the water quality, trust assets, and public safety of the State’s thousands of acres around Lake Whatcom (the source of the City of Bellingham’s water supply) from the adverse impacts of logging near the lake.

Skagit County Superior Court No. 05-2-00246-1

CLIENT:  Conservation Northwest (formerly Northwest Ecosystem Alliance) 

CO-COUNSEL:  Earthjustice

STATUS:  Settlement reached and case dismissed in July 2009

BACKGROUND:  This case concerns the right and duty of the state to protect water quality, state school trust assets, and public safety on state owned forests even if it means reduced income to the trust beneficiaries.

In 1999, Conservation Northwest, with the support of Senator Harriet Spanel, successfully convinced the Legislature to unanimously adopt a planning process that protects water quality, trust assets, and public safety in the Lake Whatcom watershed by restricting logging on surrounding state land.  Many people in Northwest Washington depend on Lake Whatcom for clean drinking water, and extensive studies reflect that logging would increase runoff of sediment and naturally-occurring phosphorus.  The planning process resulted in the development of the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan.  Also, landslides generated by steep slope logging around the lake can threaten public safety and result in damage claims against the state, jeopardizing the value of the trust assets.

Skagit County, a trust beneficiary, and industry groups challenged the Landscape Plan alleging that the Legislature could not adversely impact the value of the trust lands without compensating the trusts, regardless of the public safety and drinking water issues at stake.

Conservation Northwest moved to “intervene” in the case to defend the Legislature’s right to require the Department of Natural Resources to maintain water quality.  We sought an interpretation that the State is permitted, if not required, to protect public resources such as water quality and wildlife habitat when it conducts timber sales.  We believe that protecting important resources, like water quality in Lake Whatcom, is completely consistent with the State’s fiduciary duty to the school trusts.

In December 2006, the Court denied Conservation Northwest’s motion for summary judgment, which argued that the trusts clearly do not bar legislation such as the Lake Whatcom landscape plan.  The Court also denied plaintiff Skagit County’s argument that the Lake Whatcom legislation per se violated the State’s fiduciary duty merely because the legislation reduced the timber harvest.  In its summary judgment ruling, the Court held that the legislation is valid so long as the “primary purpose” of the legislation was to protect trust assets. 

The case went to mediation in June 2008 and a Settlement Agreement was signed in October 2008 to resolve the remaining two issues identified for trial:  whether E2SSB 6731 (which required DNR to develop a landscape plan for state-owned forest lands within the Lake Whatcom watershed) and the Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan constitute a breach of the State’s trust duties, and whether compensation or other relief is required.  Under the terms of the Agreement, the defendants agreed that the Mount Baker School District would be compensated $1.1 million.  Funding was approved and the case was dismissed in July 2009.

Read the June 15, 2009, Bellingham Herald article, “Bellingham, Whatcom County to pay Mount Baker schools over logging

Read the June 16, 2009, Bellingham Herald article, “As step toward ending lawsuit, Bellingham pays Mount Baker School District $225,000