The late-summer surge of wildfires showed the importance of effective forest management. Washington’s Department of Natural Resources controls 3 million acres of state forestland, much of which has become a perennial fire risk. In her first term, Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz has strongly advocated for better forest management and firefighting resources. She deserves a second term.
Franz, a Seattle environmental attorney and Democrat, has shown an impressive grasp of the urgency and complexity of wildfire defense. She created a landmark 10-year strategic plan for how Washington should ramp up fire prevention and response. Legislators validated the work by ramping up DNR’s wildfire funding to $50 million for the biennium. The annual cost of fighting these immense fires tops $150 million on average. The full cost is far greater, when destroyed homes and businesses and far-reaching public-health consequences are factored in.
“This isn’t a question of whether we’re going to pay for it or not,” she said in an interview. “We’re already paying for it.”
It makes sense to invest in preventing that growing danger, as Franz has done. DNR workers have treated 115,000 acres of Washington forestland for fire safety since she took office; in the eight years prior, the agency had culled 30,000 acres of dead and sick trees.
But Washington has nearly 20 million acres of forests that aren’t state-owned, about 40% of which is under federal control. Here, too, Franz has made strides for Washington by brokering an agreement for state fire-prevention crews to cross into federal woodlands. Fire is no respecter of property lines, and DNR crews should have full leeway to work efficiently.
Franz has confronted other agency dilemmas as well. To defend Puget Sound’s health, she terminated leases of a fish-farm operator whose nets collapsed, releasing hundreds of thousands of nonnative salmon. She struck a bargain in setting aside 37,000 acres of DNR land for the endangered marbled murrelet, a deal that pleased neither environmentalists — who wanted more — nor timber interests including local governments. Franz was right not to shirk her duties in either case, even though lawsuits were inevitable.
But her first term at the helm of a state agency has shown she still has room to grow as a leader. DNR’s transparency has suffered on her watch. The agency’s annual reports and mill surveys contain important information to assess how well public money is being spent and how DNR timber sales are going. Yet none of this information has been updated on DNR’s web site in years.
Franz’s challenger, Republican biologist Sue Kuehl Pederson, does not have a credible grasp of forest conservation, especially with regard to long-term needs. Voters should elect Franz again.