With the state land commissioner's seat up for grabs in November's election, logging is the dominant issue in a political campaign pitting incumbent Doug Sutherland and the timber industry against Democrat Peter Goldmark and environmentalists.

The fight between state Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland and environmentalists started shortly after he took office in 2001.

The newly elected Republican set about rolling back logging limits put in place by his predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Belcher.

Sutherland came up with a plan to open 200,000 acres of forest to logging, which had been set aside as extra protection for the endangered spotted owl.

It was the first of what’s become a running battle between Sutherland and environmentalists over the direction of an agency responsible for overseeing 5 million acres of state land and logging on private timberland.

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

With the land commissioner’s seat up for grabs in November’s election, logging is the dominant issue in a political campaign pitting Republican Sutherland and the timber industry against Democrat Peter Goldmark and environmentalists.

Sutherland casts himself as a moderate who has effectively balanced environmental protection with the need to raise money for schools and support an important local timber industry.

Goldmark, meanwhile, charges Sutherland’s image of moderation is a charade, and that the incumbent is too cozy with logging companies and too quick to open state lands to logging.

Landslides from flooding

The logging fight, a perennial feature of lands-commissioner races, is amplified this year by the flooding and landslides that swept Southwest Washington’s timber country last winter. That raised questions about Department of Natural Resources (DNR) oversight of logging on private land.

The lands commissioner overseas DNR.

Goldmark has sought to pin the landslides on Sutherland, saying the agency under his watch allowed logging on slide-prone slopes, creating a time bomb that went off under a torrential downpour last November.

“We know it was a bad storm, but we also know that DNR did nothing to determine if there was a likelihood of landslides in those areas before they were clear-cut,” Goldmark said.

A Seattle Times investigation found DNR foresters frequently signed off on logging projects on slopes previously designated as high risks for landslides. These approvals often came without state geologists going to the area to double-check the risk. But there’s little evidence that policies established by Sutherland contributed to the lack of oversight.

Goldmark said he would add a requirement that a state geologist inspect any proposed logging operation where landslide risks have been identified.

The issue isn’t isolated to those landslides, Goldmark said. He points to a series of internal agency audits in 2006 that found logging permits often lacked any evidence of required field inspections by department foresters.

“It’s endemic in the agency. They reinforce the same basic point, and that is there’s very lax oversight of the industry,” he said.

Lenny Young, manager of the DNR division that oversees logging permits, said the problem appears to mostly be foresters who don’t follow up with paperwork.

But it’s a serious problem, he said, because it makes it hard to know if the work is really done.

Sutherland’s campaign consultant, Todd Myers, dismissed Goldmark’s criticism as innuendo. He said that such audits hadn’t been done until Sutherland took over.

“Doing this kind of audit is evidence of how important doing a good job is to Doug. Other managers have failed to do this kind of oversight,” he said.

Sutherland defends his agency’s handling of logging permits when it comes to the landslide issue. He says state geologists need to check logging applications only if it’s requested by foresters.

He says the landslides were the product of an extraordinary storm that dumped more than 19 inches of rain in some places, not mistakes by his agency or logging companies. But he holds out the possibility of reforms, if a landslide study now under way calls for it.

“The rules were followed,” he said. “When you have an extraordinary weather event things do happen.”

Open to logging

Aside from the spat over landslides, it’s clear that under Sutherland, DNR has been more open to logging.

That’s meant more money for schools, happier timber companies and a string of lawsuits by environmentalists.

Belcher’s tenure was tumultuous, with her blunt style and embrace of environmental concerns at an agency that historically had been a reliable source of logs and revenue.

Timber sales from state land fell to a low of 461 million board feet in 2001, when Sutherland, in his first year, inherited sales prepared during Belcher’s tenure. Since then, they have increased to a five-year average of 557 million board feet. Much of the money raised from those timber sales goes to public-school construction.

“The (school) districts seem to be much happier. They would all like to have double the money they get, but they feel like they’re being treated fairly,” said Terry Bergeson, the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, who sits on the state Board of Natural Resources, which approves overall management of state-owned land.

Timber companies, fearing a return to the Belcher era, are pouring money into the race on Sutherland’s behalf. The Committee for Balanced Stewardship, an independent campaign group backed mostly with timber industry money, has raised nearly $600,000 this year to support Sutherland. In 2004, it spent $330,000.

“With Commissioner Sutherland we really feel that he’s taken a fair and balanced approach,” said Anthony Chavez, a spokesman for Weyerhaeuser, which has given $100,000 to the committee.

But along the way, environmental groups have won several lawsuits against the agency’s timber policies.

In 2005, a King County Superior Court judge threw out the agency’s plan to boost logging on state land in Western Washington. The proposal would have raised logging goals 11 percent — to 597 million board feet a year. The court found the state hadn’t adequately studied how the increased logging could affect spotted owls.

Sutherland’s department reached a settlement that helped cut the logging expansion to 550 million board feet.

In a separate case, a federal judge in 2007 halted four logging projects by Weyerhaeuser around spotted-owl nests in Southwest Washington. That led to another settlement. Environmental groups, Weyerhaeuser and DNR agreed to protect habitat around the owl nests, and form a group to study how to manage state lands for the owls.

Those clashes have earned Sutherland little affection from environmentalists, who urged Goldmark to run and have been a big source of his campaign contributions.

“Doug Sutherland is bought and owned by big timber interests,” said Clifford Traisman, a lobbyist for the environmental movement.

Goldmark has said he supports the logging levels set after the 2005 court decision, and wants an approach that balances the needs of industry with environmental protection.

But his rhetoric about the timber industry, starting with his blaming excessive logging for the winter-storm landslides, has raised concerns of fairness, said Mark Doumit, executive director for the industry-backed Washington Forest Protection Association.

“The fact that you try to start out your campaign by playing the blame game of the industry and the person that your hoping to replace … to me that causes some concern,” he said.

Some praise

Sutherland has scored some grudging marks from his environmental critics.

Mitch Friedman, executive director of the environmental group Conservation Northwest, praised Sutherland’s agency for negotiations over the fate of 2,800 acres of Skagit County forest. The result was a deal creating a 1,600-acre reserve protected from logging.

“I think he deserves some credit for that,” he said.

But even that has generated controversy, with other environmental groups winning a court decision this year challenging the deal because it allows logging outside the reserve.

The department this year also received an environmental certification for 145,000 acres of forestland, meaning it’s logged according to strict environmental standards.

Environmentalists say they welcome the new certification, but complain that it covers just a fraction of state forests.

Sutherland says he wants to phase-in the environmental certification for other state forestland — an approach shared by Goldmark.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com