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Wash. Districts Challenge Forest Plans

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At first, it's hard to see the connection between the crumbling roof on a 70-year-old high school in Forks, Wash., and the infestation of mountain pine beetles in the Loomis State Forest.

But officials in the Quillayute Valley school district believe the two are closely related, and that Washington state's poor handling of its woodland resources has deprived their school of much-needed repairs.

The 1,530-student district is one of 14 in the state that have filed a lawsuit against Jennifer Belcher, Washington's commissioner of public lands, and the state department of natural resources.

The Loomis forest in north-central Washington, one of the largest public forests in the state, is a trust property: land that is used to generate money, through timber harvests, for prisons, government buildings, and public schools. The lawsuit alleges that the state has mismanaged the forest, and the districts seek what they claim is $250 million in lost revenue.

For the Quillayute Valley district, one of the initial plaintiffs in the case, the deterioration of Forks High School was the catalyst behind the suit, which was filed last summer in state court. The case is scheduled for trial in July 1997.

The plaintiffs suffered a setback in May when a judge denied their request for a court order that would have required the state to increase logging in the forest.

The plaintiffs also sought to force the state to better combat the forest's infestation by mountain pine beetles, a pest that lays its eggs under the bark of lodgepole pine trees. The offspring ultimately destroy the trees when they eat their way out from under the bark.

But the judge did agree to require the state to come up with an efficient harvesting plan, said Jim Johnston, a lawyer for the Quillayute Valley district.

District officials contend that the beetles have already destroyed an estimated 20,000 acres. And the lawsuit claims that another 28,000 acres of trees may be at risk.

Long-Term Plan

John O. Jones, the Quillayute Valley superintendent, said there are about $100 million worth of dead and dying trees in the forest--trees that could have provided much-needed money for Forks High School.

"A 70-year-old building cannot support a program that will take students into the 21st century," Mr. Jones said about Forks High.

"If we were to have an earthquake," he added "the whole building would fall apart."

In a recent interview, Ms. Belcher said that though she is aware that the 429 students at Forks High need a new school, that's not the state's fault.

"The problem is that schools want more money than is available," she said.

In his May ruling, the judge in the case, T.W. Small, agreed. "There is nothing in the law that requires the department to maximize current income," he wrote.

State officials consider the ruling a partial victory, saying an order to increase logging would have interfered with their long-term management plan for the forest.

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