Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commissioner of public lands candidates clash on climate change, managing lands and wildfires in Thursday debate

Late afternoon light catches smoke from the Cold Springs Canyon Pearl Hill Fire near Omak, Wash. in September.  (Tyler Tjomsland/Spokesman-Review)

In a debate for commissioner of public lands, candidates clashed over climate change, how best to balance land conservation and management, and wildfire prevention and fighting.

The Thursday virtual debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Washington and The Spokesman-Review, featured the two commissioner of public lands candidates on the ballot in November: incumbent Hilary Franz, Democrat, and challenger Sue Kuehl Pederson, Republican. Spokesman-Review reporter Laurel Demkovich moderated the discussion.

Throughout the debate, Franz leaned on her first-term experience and support, and Kuehl Pederson focused on her knowledge as a biologist when looking at the science of wildfires and a changing climate.

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

Kuehl Pederson said she believes in climate change but not in the way other people do. She said she believes climate change has always happened and devastating fires happen every year, which puts more carbon emissions into the air.

“I’m not worried about cause and effect at this point,” she said. “We just need to stop having catastrophic fires, and the key to that is to reduce the fuels.”

Franz said climate change is one of her agency’s largest challenges. She said she is approaching climate change in two ways: creating a climate resiliency plan that shows how climate is affecting Washington state and investing in the lands that will be the most affected by it.

When asked about a tax on carbon emissions, Kuehl Pederson said she didn’t think there was enough data to support that kind of tax. She said there are better tools to measure climate change now, but not necessarily more change in the climate.

“It’s still a controversial subject, whether we have climate change,” she said.

Franz said climate change is being felt across the state, from increasing floods to dust storms to wildfires. Farmers, ranchers and firefighters agree, she said.

“They all know it’s changing,” Franz said.

Franz did not say whether she supports a carbon tax but said it is time to take action, calling it the “greatest threat facing our economy, environment and community as a whole.”

She did say she does not support putting the cost of fighting climate change on families who might be struggling financially already.

Kuehl Pederson said Franz’s administration has not done enough to prevent wildfires and focuses too heavily on fighting them. Kuehl Pederson said her plans for preventing wildfires are cheap and easy, such as building more fire breaks in communities or forests that are especially prone to fires.

She said Franz’s 10- and 20-year plans are not enough.

“We have to view this as an emergency situation,” she said.

Franz said her plan will make forests across the state healthier and less likely to burn quickly. In addition, she said communities need to become more resilient and fireproof their homes and buildings.

When it comes to balancing land management for revenue and conservation, Kuehl Pederson said she is frustrated with the amount of land management being done, arguing there needs to be more logging, calling the timber industry “normal, proper management of our lands.” She called the regulation of lands in Washington “extreme.”

Franz said different types of lands have different abilities for revenue and conservation. For example, she wants to keep agriculture as agricultural land’s biggest use, but she also said she focuses on generating revenue on commercial and urban lands.

Kuehl Pederson pushed back on that answer, saying there’s a trend in Washington to take away the ability of land owners to do what they want on their own land.

“These are things land owners need to be in charge of, not the government,” Kuehl Pederson said.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.