Who would have thought one of the hottest 2016 statewide races in Washington would be for Public Lands Commissioner? The heat may emanate partly from last summer’s worst-ever Washington wildfires and questions regarding the response of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the largest firefighting department in the state.
Firefighting is the most visible responsibility of DNR and may have played a role in convincing incumbent Peter Goldmark to leave the race. But it’s only one of the four responsibilities of the office.
Other duties include serving as a regulator for natural resource-based industries and as a conservator for state lands designated for preservation. The Commissioner also works with the Forest Practices Board, tasked with overseeing public and private forest lands.
Doug Sutherland, who served in the position from 2000-2008, emphasized the Commissioner’s duty to manage working lands to produce revenue for the beneficiaries of the various trusts. Trust lands include timber, rangeland, aquatic beds, agricultural and some commercial properties. It’s a diversified portfolio. The multiple beneficiaries include public K-12 schools, universities, prisons, state capital buildings and counties. Each has a representative on the Board of Natural Resources, chaired by the Commissioner.
The Commissioner manages a staff of about 1,200 technical experts and specialists to carry out the duties of the office.
Goldmark’s Exit Unexpected
Goldmark’s exit from the race was an unexpected turnabout. As recently as September 2015 he had declared he would pursue a third term. He has over $150,000 in campaign funds on hand according to his most recent Public Disclosure Commission reports. Goldmark’s withdrawal was last month. He said his decision came after talks with his family.
The race has drawn a total of seven candidates – five Democrats, one Libertarian and one Republican. Lens was able to connect with six of the seven for this article.
Hilary Franz: Climate Change A Threat To Forests
Hilary Franz is taking a leave of absence from her current position as Executive Director of Futurewise, a Seattle based public interest group focused on growth management issues statewide. Franz said that “as Public Lands Commissioner, [she] will prioritize restoring forest health” because “climate change and poor forest health threaten our forests, our economy and our communities.” She also said she would push the legislature for more money for wildfire prevention and response. Franz is a graduate of Smith College and Northeastern University Law School. She filed as a Democrat.
Steve McLaughlin Wants ‘Collaborative Solutions, Not Courtroom Drama’
Steve McLaughlin of Seabeck, which lies 40 miles west of Seattle on the Kitsap Peninsula, earned degrees in Biology and Public Health from the University of Oregon, and served in the U.S. Navy for over 25 years in various leadership positions before returning to civilian life. He is currently consulting as an Incident Command and emergency management instructor.
McLaughlin emphasized breaking down the east-west divide in Washington. He said one key challenge is balancing revenue generation from ag, timber and tidelands with long-term sustainability. He said his regulatory approach would be to seek “collaborative solutions, not courtroom drama,” by bringing all stakeholders to the table. McLaughlin is running as a Republican and has set up an initial campaign page on Facebook.
Steven Nielsen’s Priorities: Improved Forest Health, Land Management
The other non-Seattle candidate is Steven Nielson of Port Orchard. Nielson is an engineer and a conservation resource stewardship volunteer. His management experience has included responsibility for a group of 600-800 employees as part of the senior management team for a local aerospace company. He cited dead and dying trees as evidence of unhealthy forests and the need for better land management. He would seek better data, forecasting and modeling on climate change impacts to guide decisions.
Nielson said his goal is to “put Washington resources back to work for Washington state.” His platform and policies are on his campaign website and he has a state wide tour planned over the next few weeks. Nielson is running as a Libertarian and is past chairman of that party’s state organization.
Karen Porterfield Accents Leadership, Revenues
Karen Porterfield, a management consultant from Seattle filing as a Democrat, announced her challenge to Goldmark in February of this year. Her move came before he chose not to stand for re-election. Porterfield cited a record of failed leadership and falling revenues to the trust beneficiaries as her motivation to challenge the two-term incumbent.
Porterfield has reviewed staff surveys and found a pattern of dissatisfaction with agency leadership. She says that key challenges for the next Commissioner will be refocusing the agency on effectiveness in carrying out its four core duties, plus empowering staff in the field and building trust with local partners.
She also aims to reverse years of neglect in managing forest health and fire prevention, lagging behind Idaho, Oregon and California in use of controlled burns to clear out underbrush.
Porterfield is a member of the faculty at Seattle University in the Masters of Public Administration program. Her previous political experience includes an unsuccessful challenge to Congressman Dave Reichert (R-8) in 2012.
John Stillings: Olympic Medal-Winning Team Leader
A late entry to the race is Democrat John Stillings. His name will be familiar to some as a 1984 Olympic silver medalist and a Husky Hall of Famer, and one of the most successful coxswains in the history of UW rowing. Stillings is an artist, active in the Washington State Chapter of the U.S. Olympians Association and Olympians for Olympians Relief Fund, and still competes in masters rowing competitions. Stillings said his priorities would be better forest health, wildfire prevention, and increasing ground water retention. He acknowledged the need to generate revenue for the schools, while also managing for sustainability. He cited his record of leading teams to success, focusing on a common goal and guiding the efforts of others. Stillings has no campaign website, at this writing.
Dave Upthegrove: An ‘Out and Out Environmentalist’
Also running is former State Rep. Dave Upthegrove, a South King County Democrat who served five terms in the legislature and chaired the House Environment Committee. Since 2013 he has been a King County Council member. In his announcement a week after Goldmark dropped out of the race, Upthegrove described himself as “an out-and-out environmentalist” who would “combat climate change, support responsible conservation and protect Puget Sound.” Upthegrove majored in environmental conservation, with a minor in biology, at the University of Colorado.
Mary Verner: Agency Professional
Mary Verner decided to run for the position after Goldmark’s unexpected announcement. She has been DNR’s Deputy Supervisor for Resource Protection Administration since May of 2013. Verner emphasized her familiarity with agency operations and experience in managing a large and complex workforce of 2,200 as Mayor of Spokane from 2007 to 2011. She earned a master’s degree from Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1992. Verner has filed as a Democrat.
Of these candidates, the top two vote getters in the August primary election will advance to the November general election.
State Lands Yield Crucial Benefits
At a time when the state of Washington is under demands to cut class sizes by hiring more teachers, balancing revenue and sustainability is critical. Revenue generated by lands held in trust support school districts as they work to build new classrooms to house those new teachers, The public lands revenues also fund capital projects at the public state universities that train many of those teachers. Aquatic lands, ag lands, and timber all play a role.
“Forests are the solution to climate change both by sequestering carbon in standing trees and storing it in wood products,” said Patti Case, Public Affairs Manager for Green Diamond Resource Company. A number of studies of DNR operations have been conducted in the last eight years. One of the latest, Wildfire in Washington, was compiled under the direction of Rep. Tom Dent (R-13).
The Dent report’s recommendations included targeted fuels reduction, better cooperative relationships with local fire agencies, and expanded training through the Firewise Communities program. It also accents making better use of logging crews idled by high fire danger, which would provide additional skilled resources during initial attack. “The new Commissioner needs to take the recommendations of these studies seriously,” said Case.
The Dent report also points out the carbon emissions released by Washington wildfires in 2015 was “anywhere from 13-50% of Washington’s total carbon emissions for the year.”
Seven serious candidates. One enormous responsibility – for the voters.