Student suing state Lands Commissioner:
Last-minute Belcher 'legacy' could cost state millions

FORKS ,WA- Lame duck Lands Commissioner Jennifer Belcher isn't following accepted policies when it comes to calculating how much timber can be harvested on state trust lands - and her actions could cost literally hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years. A lawsuit filed today in the name of a young student, her parents and a small Olympic Peninsula school district levels those charges against outgoing commissioner Belcher and the state Department of Natural Resources.

The student, Anastasia Elizabeth Fleck, is a kindergartner in Forks. Joining the youngster in the lawsuit is the Mary M. Knight School District, which serves the community of Matlock and surrounding areas in rural Mason and Grays Harbor counties.

"What Jennifer Belcher is doing could cost this state's schools and taxpayers tens of millions of dollars," said Rod Fleck, father of Anastasia and a Forks attorney. "It could also mean thousands of jobs lost each year in rural Washington."

"In Belcher's last few weeks in office, she wants to reduce how much timber can be harvested on state trust lands over the next 10 years.  This is a huge public policy decision that is being done as she leaves office.  She hasn't followed procedures adopted by the Board of Natural Resources.  She has not done this in a scientifically reasonable manner; and she certainly isn't seeking the public's input in this process."

"In other words, Jennifer Belcher is breaching her responsibility to support our schools through her mismanagement of state trust lands."

Fleck continued, "That isn't right.  Our family agreed to be part of this lawsuit because we live in a small community whose schools have benefited greatly from money generated by state trust lands.  We're very concerned that Belcher's actions will significantly reduce an important source of funding used to build schools in this state."

The lawsuit, filed in Thurston County Superior Court, contends that in Belcher's final days she is seeking to reduce the timber harvest level on state trust lands.  The harvest level is set by a sustained yield calculation.  The calculation is based on a variety of factors, including forest practice regulations, Habitat Conservation Plans and environmental protection standards.

The lawsuit asks that:

Belcher and the Department of Natural Resources perform a sustainable yield calculation in full accord with adopted Board of Natural Resources policies and not based on interpretations of those policies by the lands commissioner;

The court declare that Belcher's current calculations of the sustained harvest level are not reasonable and breach DNR's trust responsibilities;

The court rule that failure to harvest state trust lands at or near the sustainable harvest level is a breach of trust duties; and,

Belcher correct a shortfall in timber sales from state trust lands during the past three years.

The last time the sustained yield was recalculated was 1996, when DNR entered into a statewide Habit Conservation Plan.  Generally, DNR recalculates the sustained yield every decade following revisions to policies and plans approved by the Board of Natural Resources.  Belcher, who leaves office on January 15, is seeking a last-minute, mid-course revision that does not include a proper baseline analysis of timber on state trust lands or key practices that might constrain harvesting, according to the lawsuit.

"The sustained yield calculation is conceptually simple, but technically rigorous and complex," said Jim Johnston, the attorney who filed the action. "Diverging from the proper process creates a calculation with very little scientific credibility or usefulness.  That's what we have going on in the lands commissioner's final days."

And the cost to the state could be staggering.

State trust lands produce $200 million to $400 million per year, some of which is used to fund the DNR's management of those same trust lands.  Based on preliminary reviews of Belcher's sustained yield calculation, that figure could drop to as low as $70 million.   At a time when the state's next budget could be as much as $1.2 billion over voter-mandated spending caps, there is likely to be no surplus to replace revenue lost by reduced trust lands sales.

"My daughter's schools were built with timber money from state trust lands," Fleck said.  "If Belcher isn't challenged, we could end up with results that harm our public schools, our colleges and universities, taxpayers, people who buy and manufacture the timber sold from state lands and even DNR itself.

"Wouldn't it be simpler if she simply left the recalculation of the sustained yield figure to the next lands commissioner, working with the Board of Natural Resources, who ought to have the time to run an open, public process that is truly based on science?"

For additional information, please contact: Rod Fleck 360/374-9234  (h) 360/640-0524  (cell)
or Jim Johnston 1 (206) 583-8626

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