Washington’s commissioner of public lands may be the most influential elected office you’ve never heard of.
It’s the top job at the Department of Natural Resources, which manages 5.6 million acres of state-owned forest, agricultural and aquatic lands to generate revenue for Washington’s K-12 schools, universities and prisons.
DNR commands the state’s largest on-call wildland firefighting force of 1,500 people, putting the agency on the front lines of Washington’s longer, hotter wildfire seasons. The agency’s clout also extends to other areas. DNR manages popular recreation sites; interacts with the state’s 29 federally recognized tribes; enforces logging regulations on private timberlands; and is one of the players in Puget Sound’s cleanup.
“This position, though little known, is one of the most important in the state,” said Hilary Franz, an environmental attorney. “I truly believe how we manage our public lands will determine how we mitigate and adapt to climate change … and how we grow our local economies, from the most urban to the most rural areas.”
Franz, executive director of the advocacy group Futurewise, is part of a crowded field of candidates vying to replace incumbent Peter Goldmark, who isn’t running for a third term. Five Democrats, one Republican and one Libertarian will square off in the Aug. 2 primary, with the top two advancing to the November general election regardless of party.
In addition to Franz, the Democrats in the race are former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who is currently DNR’s deputy for wildfires and administration; Karen Porterfield, a management consultant and Seattle University faculty member; King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove; and John Stillings, a Seattle contractor.
Republican Steve McLaughlin, a retired Navy officer, is also in the race for the $133,000-per-year position, along with Libertarian Steven Nielson.
Two record-setting wildfire years have called into question the state’s preparedness for fighting wildfires and drawn attention to forest conditions.
Last year, wildfire suppression costs exceeded $164 million in Washington and nearly 500 square miles of state-protected lands burned. Across the state, the fires released the equivalent of 24 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2015, making wildfires a significant contributor to Washington’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Protecting communities from wildfires and improving forest health should be top priorities for the agency, most of the candidates said. Many state-owned forests are overcrowded and affected by disease, drought and decades of wildfire suppression. DNR needs to step up the use of prescribed burns to thin trees and reduce the risk of catastrophic fires, candidates said.
Some communities will be affected by smoke from prescribed burns, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff, McLaughlin said.
“How do you want your smoke?” he said. “All summer long in a catastrophic wildfire? Or a few days each year from 9 to 5?”
DNR halted prescribed burns on state forest lands for several years as a result of budget cutbacks. The Legislature recently appropriated $800,000 for three pilot prescribed burns, which will include air quality monitoring, Verner said.
However, expectations for DNR management of state-owned lands differ across Washington.
“In Eastern Washington, the conversation is about forest fires. In the Olympic Peninsula, it’s about revenue (for local communities) from logging and in Seattle, it’s about recreation,” Porterfield said.
The job also comes with a mandate to maximize income from state trust lands.
“If you go into that position thinking like an environmental crusader, I think you’re missing the intent of the office,” Nielson said.
Porterfield was an early candidate in the race. She announced in February that she would run, which was several months ahead of Goldmark’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek re-election.
“We could not afford four more years of this,” Porterfield said.
She said a management turnaround is needed at DNR, with urgent action to address wildfire preparedness and steady declines in revenue from state trust lands. The agency operates under a “19th-century business model” and needs innovation to find new revenue streams, such as leasing low-value agricultural lands for renewable energy development, she said.
Verner said she would bring the most wildfire experience to the job. During her three years at DNR, Verner said the state’s firefighting preparedness has risen and cooperation among state, federal and local agencies has increased. She cited the recent interagency training of 500 firefighters at Deer Park is an example.
DNR can do more to help property owners “understand their responsibility and duty to reduce the fuel loads” around their homes, she said. “We also need to help people understand that fire evacuation orders should be taken seriously.”
Verner also thinks the Legislature should raise the amount that private timberland owners pay to fund state readiness to fight wildfires. The fee costs the owner of a 50-acre parcel about $17 annually. In Okanogan County, the assessment raised about $472,000 last year, but the cost of stationing trained firefighting crews and equipment in the county was $2.6 million, she said.
Washington’s cash-strapped general fund can no longer afford to subsidize the cost of fighting wildfires, she said.
Though well known in the Spokane area, Verner acknowledged that she doesn’t have as much name recognition in Western Washington as Seattle-area candidates. However, “I’m not yielding King County to anyone,” she said.
Franz and Upthegrove each said their political experience would be an asset in running DNR.
Franz, a former Bainbridge Island city councilwoman, said she has decades of experience bringing together local governments, citizen groups and nonprofits to find solutions to land-use and environmental issues.
“I’ve worked at the local level protecting working forestland and working farmland. And I’ve worked in Olympia getting the largest transportation package in state history passed,” Franz said.
Upthegrove, a former state representative, said he’s the candidate who could work most effectively with the Legislature. He also said he has a track record of advocating for both economic and environmental interests, a balancing act required of the commissioner of public lands.
“We were able to shut down the state’s coal plant in a way that took care of our workers. And we were able to help get the phosphorus out of the Spokane River” through restrictions on phosphorus in dishwashing detergents, Upthegrove said.
“Our public lands and the DNR are facing huge challenges right now,” he said. “The DNR needs a leader with a track record of getting big things done.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.