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Jennifer Belcher, Washington’s first female public lands commissioner, dies at 78

Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher talks with reporters in Olympia, Wash., on May 8, 2000, after her announcement that she will not seek re-election to the office she has held since 1992. Belcher died Thursday with her family in West Virginia.  (Associated Press)
Commissioner of Public Lands Jennifer Belcher talks with reporters in Olympia, Wash., on May 8, 2000, after her announcement that she will not seek re-election to the office she has held since 1992. Belcher died Thursday with her family in West Virginia. (Associated Press)
By Martín Bilbao Olympian

Jennifer Belcher, the first woman to serve as Washington state’s public lands commissioner, died on Thursday with her family in West Virginia. She was 78.

Barbara Miller, Belcher’s sister, confirmed her death to the Olympian. “She leaves one great legacy of breaking the glass ceiling and helping a lot of younger women break that glass ceiling,” Miller said.

Belcher led the state Department of Natural Resources from 1993 to 2001, administering 5.8 million acres of public land, according to her state biography. She also worked to protect wildlife habitat and hired the state’s first female state forester.

In her Legacy Washington biography, she called the Habitat Conservation Plan one of the great accomplishments of her tenure.

In a statement, current Public Lands Commissioner Hillary Franz called Belcher an inspirational figure with a distinguished and proud legacy.

“As just the second woman to serve in this role, I am forever grateful to Commissioner Belcher for her fearlessness in trailblazing a path that made my service possible,” Franz said. “Her commitment to this agency, care for our natural environment, and deep sense of social justice continue to inspire me and so many others.”

In 1983, Belcher began a decade-long career in the state House of Representatives. She represented Legislative District 22, which included most of Thurston County, as a Democrat.

As a representative, she pushed for subsidized daycare and comparable pay for women employed by the state.

“She was a public servant to the state of Washington for the majority of her adult life. We shared her with the people of Washington, and we intend to bring her ashes back there and scatter them and let her remain forever with you all,” Miller said.

Belcher was born on Jan. 4, 1944 in Beckly, West Virginia. She got her start in politics by working as an aide to Washington state Governors Daniel J. Evans and Dixy Lee Ray from 1973 to 1979.

She declared her candidacy for Commissioner of Public Lands in 1992 as the first woman to even attempt it. She defeated Ann Anderson, a Republican state senator from Whatcom County.

Rather than run a third time, Belcher chose to focus on her family. She eventually returned to West Virginia to work as a founding partner for Legacy Builders, a firm that helps executives shape a community legacy.

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