Stop funding school construction with clear cuts

Diminishing returns: A marbled murrelet fishes for dinner. Credit: Gus Van Vliet, US Fish & Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons

Education and nature are sacred in Washington. Yet when we build new schools, tens of thousands of trees on state trust lands are felled to fund their construction.

An archaic article in our state constitution requires it.

It is a tragic irony that we educate our children in schools built with money earned by denuding and despoiling the very environment we want them to learn to cherish and protect. Also tragic is that few citizens know our state still clear-cuts forests, including old-growth, to fund school construction and remodels.

Lawmakers should abolish our state’s obsolete, frontier-era, “timber for schools” funding scheme because it hinders our Legislature’s ability to fulfill its constitutional duty to “provide for a general and uniform system of public schools” and unnecessarily threatens our states’ wildlife, fisheries and public lands.

In 1889, our state founders saw the cathedral-like stands of timber that graced our mountainsides and cradled our salmon-rich streams as an inexhaustible, tax-free revenue source for education. Article IX of the Constitution codified this vision and the 1966 Common School Construction Fund Amendment cemented it by mandating that, in addition to adhering to state and federal conservation laws, the Department of Natural Resources had to help bankroll school construction costs with timber harvest revenues from its 2.2 million acre trust lands.

Since 1966, the DNR has maximized revenue for schools by allowing private logging companies to aggressively clear-cut our leased public lands. The resultant devastation to fisheries and forests is well known. For example, in the 1980s, logging caused landslides on the North Fork of the Stillaguamish River that almost eliminated that stream’s legendary run of acrobatic summer steelhead and discharged  an immense stain of mud for almost three years into Port Susan Bay, 37 miles downstream in Puget Sound.

When this year’s legislature revisits the McCleary decision’s demand to restructure K-12 funding for long-term sustainability, citizens should contact and encourage their representatives to develop legislation to terminate the DNR mandate. The DNR could immediately trim off the substantial, self-perpetuating bureaucracy that surrounds its timber sales units. The agency could prioritize preservation and recreation and invest any profits from maintenance harvests into land rehabilitation projects, scientific research or buying new lands.

Lost revenue could be replaced with an education-dedicated 1 percent increase in corporate B & O taxes, an education-dedicated income tax, or the redirection of corporate tax breaks to our schools.

Since the 1980s, the DNR has been unable to keep pace with demand for new schools as Washington’s K-12 student population has exploded past 1 million. Simply put, there are too many kids and not enough trees.  

As school construction demands have soared, the DNR’s actual share of costs has shriveled. In 2006, for example, DNR data shows timber sales contributed only $75 million to that year’s $1.9 billion K-12 capital projects. For perspective, Microsoft’s profits in 2006 were $12.6 billion.

With DNR funds at a trickle, local property tax responsibility for bricks and mortar has bulged from 33 to 85 percent of costs since 1987, according to the Superintendent’s Office of Public Instruction. But new levies only pass consistently in wealthier jurisdictions — dozens of local capital bond votes have failed in the last decade in predominately low-income districts where students of color suffer the worst effects of the failed mandate.

When needed schools go unbuilt, children are packed into schools and classrooms like sardines. Every day, over 100,000 students are relegated to “portable” classrooms in school parking lots across the state. In 2012, the Seattle School District reported that 5,000 students — 10 percent of the student population — sat in portables, and others studied in gyms and hallways. The National Education Association ranks Washington 43rd in class size averages.

Let’s be honest. This is beyond embarrassing. It is indefensible.

So too is the pretense that the DNR’s mixed mandate, to maximize logging revenues for schools while simultaneously managing the very same forests for ecological sustainability, is a rational policy framework. It isn’t. The plight of the endangered marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird whose West Coast numbers have crashed by 30 percent since 2000, is a case in point.

Murrelets are fascinating creatures, the sort that inspire children to love nature, science and research. Although less than elegant in the air, the chunky murrelets “fly” expertly underwater, chasing baitfish over 150 feet deep. They sometimes range up to 50 miles inland to deliver the day’s catch to the nest of their lone progeny — murrelets lay a single egg per year — hundreds of feet high in secluded, lichen-heavy, old-growth trees. When these ancient trees disappear, so do the murrelets. Forever.

Just last summer, King County Superior Court Judge Bruce E. Heller found the DNR guilty of violating the State Environmental Policy Act for approving the harvest of over 12,000 acres of prime old-growth and mature trees in Southwest Washington. The proposed cut comprised rare, well-known habitat for the marbled murrelet, which the DNR has a statutory obligation to protect.

“This case demonstrates that the pursuit of trust land timber dollars can become all-consuming and destructive,” said Wyatt Golding, staff attorney at the Washington Forest Law Center and counsel of record for the Heller case.  “It also highlights the difficult position that well-intentioned DNR land managers are in. Timber interests pursuing profit put massive political pressure on the DNR, and they do so while hiding behind school children.”

Those who might defend the DNR mandate and its tiny revenue stream with zero-sum arguments should consider historian Patricia Limerick’s warning in The Legacy of Conquest:The cruel but common lesson of western history" is that "postponements and evasions catch up with people."

Our decision to build schools with “free” timber money instead of paying taxes has already imperiled species like the murrelet, the spotted owl and the magnificent Loomis lynx. Logging operations have choked our rivers with silt and decimated our sacred salmon runs. By 1990, 104 Northwest salmon stocks were extinct, 214 were endangered, and in 2007, the National Marine Fisheries Service reported that only 10 percent of Puget Sound’s historic runs still survived.

It is time to confront history, abolish the mandate and manage our schools and trust lands with principles that honor our state’s greatness.

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