Different Visions For Public Lands Chief

Palmer Lake is in Loomis State Forest, Okanagan County. The working forest is managed by the Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR). As head of DNR, the state public lands commissioner teams with lawmakers to find the right balance between revenue-generating, conservation and recreational activities on state-owned lands. Photo: DNR/Diana Lofflin.

As head of the Washington state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the Public Lands Commissioner oversees 2.1 million acres of forested state trust lands. The commissioner also manages state aquatic lands and chairs the Forest Practices Board, which adopts timber harvesting rules on both public and private property.

Making Money For Schools, Guiding State Forestry

State forests are required to generate a profit. Proceeds from timber sales go toward public education construction and other projects. In 2015, timber sales and aquatic leases combined brought in $313 million.

The commissioner’s policy leadership on logging and forest health restoration can shape timber harvesting rules on private and state land, and determine the effectiveness of DNR response to wildfires.

Following the August 2 Washington state primary election, the two finalists for commissioner out of the seven candidates to replace retiring incumbent Peter Goldmark are Republican Steve McLaughlin and Democrat Hilary Franz.  

McLaughlin is a Seabeck resident and retired as a Navy Commander after 25 years. Franz, of Bainbridge Island, served as a city council member there and is an attorney with 20 years of experience in environmental policy. 

McLaughlin: Balance State Timber Sales With Conservation

McLaughlin has worked the front lines providing disaster relief in Eastern Washington communities hit by wildfires and after the Oso landslide. In his last Navy position he successfully launched a campaign to preserve one of the few remaining old growth forests in Northern Puget Sound.

McLaughlin told Lens he wants to keep environmental disputes over state land out of the courtroom. That means fulfilling DNR’s legal mandate to generate revenue from state trust land but also addressing environmental concerns, he said. McLaughlin said his work as a political military advisor in Bosnia in the mid-1990s under General Wesley Clarke shows he can foster cooperation.

“By talking and working together to come up with intelligent, science-based solutions, we can do a much better job at managing our environment,” he said.

That is an approach favored by Mark Doumit, the executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association (WFPA). The trade association represents 50 private forest landowners in the state.

“There’s too much fighting going on between the environmental community and other stakeholders,” he said. “I’m an environmentalist myself. I think there are different types of environmentalism, and we’ve got to find ways to work together.”

End Mandated Income From State Forests, Says Franz

Franz believes the state should end the legal mandate requiring state forests generate an income. In a candidate questionnaire response to the 46th District Democrats, Franz called the policy “environmentally harmful” and “archaic” and favored replacing state logging revenue to fund school construction with alternative sources such as an increase in business and occupation taxes, or “redirection” of corporate tax incentives to schools.

She also voiced support in the questionnaire reply for a state capital gains tax and stated she opposes coal and oil exports from Washington ports.

Franz was the executive director of Futurewise for four years before she stepped down to run for commissioner, according to her Linkedin profile. The statewide public interest group focuses on growth policies and protecting farmland, forests and shorelines.

Franz is backed by several fellow environmental attorneys including Peter Goldman, head of the Washington Forest Law Center; Samuel Plauche of Plauche and Carr LLP; and Rodney Brown with the Cascadia Law Group.

McLaughlin has gained the support of private forestry groups such as the Green Diamond Resource Company, Washington Forest Protection Association, and Sierra Pacific Industries.

The Slow Growth Approach Of Futurewise

Futurewise in recent years has filed environmental lawsuits against counties such as Benton, Spokane, Okanogan and Whatcom to fight pro-growth policy moves. They’ve also opposed recent efforts by the Bethel School District in Pierce County to build a new high school outside of the county’s urban growth boundary.

However, Franz told Lens that since joining the organization she’s emphasized using the courtroom less and put more emphasis on collaboration with communities and stakeholders, including a 2014 agreement with Kittitas County that ended an eight-year wrangle.

Commander-In-Chief Of State Wildfires

The commissioner’s office has gained a higher profile in recent years because of increasingly severe wildfires seasons. In 2014 and 2015 alone, wildfires in Washington burned 1.4 million acres and cost $278 million.  

DNR has firefighting and regulatory authority over 13 million acres of state and private forests. Firefighting on federal land in the state is handled jointly with the Forest Service.

McLaughlin cites his teaching of incident management courses for firefighters, police officers, sheriffs, deputies and forest rangers.

It is the kind of experience a commissioner needs to properly handle emergencies such as wildfires, says Patti Case. Case is the public affairs manager for Green Diamond Resource Company.

“The fact that he has been an incident commander and has also taught means he really understands the unique requirements (of the office),” she said.

State Forest Lands At High Risk

The state wildfire problem has been tied to the poor condition of many state forestlands. A December 2015 report issued by Rep. Tom Dent (R-13) found that approximately 600,000 acres of state-managed forestland in eastern Washington are at high risk from wildfire, insects and other hazards.

Franz says her highest priority would be making forests healthier, while McLaughlin believes wildfire suppression efforts have to improve if restoration work is to be successful. He advocates state training programs for fire jurisdictions and property owners, and better utilizing their local knowledge when state and federal agencies assume command of a wildfire.

“Fire knows no bounds, yet we continue to fight fires based on jurisdictions,” he said.

Franz said her prior work with state lawmakers at Futurewise and as a city council member puts her in a strong position to obtain more funding for DNR, particularly for forest health restoration work.   

“You can’t get anything done in this state as the head of the agency (DNR) if you can’t work with the legislature,” she said.

Close Race, But Many Voters Still Undecided

A recent poll shows the race is neck-and-neck, according to the Seattle PI. However, 35 percent of those surveyed were undecided.

McLaughlin and Franz won 37.9 percent and 22.8 percent of 1.3 million primary election votes cast for the office.

The closest competitors were Democrats Dave Upthegrove and Mary Verner with 14.1 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively.

As of September 6, Franz had raised $212,017 and McLaughlin $53,124.

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