Darth Doug

Environmentalists take the commissioner of public lands to court.

Before he took office, environmentalists prophesied that Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland would prove to be Darth Vader to Washington's state forests. While Sutherland hasn't gone around wearing a black helmet and cape, his department's recent actions have raised the hackles of the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife and resulted in a lawsuit by the Washington Environmental Council (WEC).

On July 11, WEC sued Sutherland's state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which manages timber sales on state lands. WEC's argument: If the state wants to impose a timber cutting plan, then it has to do a new environmental impact statement.

The state's response was simple: No, we don't.

The jumping-off point for the suit came in late June, when Sutherland and the Board of Natural Resources, which oversees DNR policies, approved extending the state's forest resources plan for another three years. The plan was last approved in 1992 and was due to be updated this year.

But Sutherland, the GOP's highest elected official in the state, came into office in January 2001, determined to increase timber harvests on the 2.1 million acres of state-owned land. These timber sales fund a portion of construction costs for K-12 schools as well as state universities. The timber industry was furious that under Sutherland's predecessor, Jennifer Belcher, environmental policy had slowed sales.

Sutherland has directed DNR to begin the long, complex process of calculating how much timber could be produced from state lands.

WEC's legal argument is that Sutherland cannot just make new logging plans. Under the State Environmental Policy Act, WEC argues, the department first has to take into account the cumulative impact of logging on streams and creeks and the effect that has on fish and wildlife—and it has to go through a formal environmental impact analysis and issue a report before it can extend the 10-year-old forest resources plan.

"You can't set a harvest level before determining what you are capable of cutting and what's available to be cut," says Toby Thaler, a lawyer with the Washington Forest Law Center, which filed the suit on behalf of WEC. "It seems kind of backward."

But Sutherland is transitioning DNR back into its historical mode of being an agency that harvests trees first and foremost. No one is happier than the timber industry.

"Doug's the right person at the right time," says Bob Dick, a lobbyist with the American Forest Resources Council.

Predictably, enviro groups like WEC are not cheered—especially after WEC spent months meeting with Sutherland and DNR personnel trying to avoid just such a situation. DNR feels similarly frosted in return.

"Any lawsuit is really a step away from collaborative problem solving—that's the biggest danger with these lawsuits," says Todd Myers, communications director for DNR. He says that DNR is not obligated to file a new environmental impact statement to go with the old forest resources plan.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife is, in its bureaucratic way, torqued at DNR. Fish and Wildlife is charged, among other things, with protecting species and their habitats such as mature stands of trees.

DNR, however, has proposed two changes to logging policy that would affect wildlife habitat. The first would eliminate the so-called 50-25 rule. The rule requires that in any watershed, 50 percent of the trees older than 25 years be left after logging operations; the idea is to prevent a clear-cut that silts up streams and creeks. DNR's second proposal would change how many "legacy"—or old—trees are required to be left in place.

In both cases, Fish and Wildlife has issued letters openly critical of the moves, according to documents obtained by Seattle Weekly. One letter alleges that the 50-25 change "would likely result in landscapes which do not support a significant proportion of native wildlife species" and that it "may not provide adequate protection against cumulative impacts and will increase impacts significantly above current practice." The other letter states that changing legacy tree rules would cause "significant loss of rare and important wildlife habitat."

The letters were written by David Whipple, a manager for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. WEC is just as stirred up by the proposals; the group is already hinting that it will file another suit if DNR attempts to impose the new rules.

One person who's not surprised by any of this is Jennifer Belcher, commissioner of public lands from 1993 to 2001. She says it's "naive" and a "significant retreat" for the department for Sutherland to extend the forest resources plan without examining environmental impacts. Belcher is just as pointed about DNR's proposed rule changes. "The public should be concerned," she says.

As a result of the suit, Sutherland postponed forthcoming timber sales until September.


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