Protecting the environment is a top priority for Washingtonians. It can be accomplished by the next lands commissioner without extreme measures.
AN unsung success of Washington state government is its careful management of trust lands across the state.
For more than a century, state forests, farmland and waters have quietly and consistently generated billions of dollars to fund schools and other essential services.
Managing these lands — while protecting the environment and regulating logging — is the primary responsibility of the state Department of Natural Resources’ boss, the commissioner of public lands.
With the surprise retirement of current Commissioner Peter Goldmark, an Okanogan rancher and biologist, voters will choose a newcomer for the job in November’s election.
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Candidates are still surfacing, but so far they include Metropolitan King County Council member Dave Upthegrove, Bellevue management consultant Karen Porterfield, Hilary Franz, executive director of Seattle environmental group Futurewise, who is taking leave to run, Port Orchard engineer Steven Nielson, and Mary Verner, a former Spokane mayor now supervising DNR’s wildfire program.
There’s always need for improvement and change. But lands commissioner is not a job for an extremist hoping to clear-cut hard-fought policy agreements, including forest-protection rules that are among the strictest in the nation. As voters vet the candidates for this job, and other candidates consider running, here are a few things to consider:
The job requires a pragmatic manager who respects DNR’s diverse constituencies, mediates between them and balances competing views on the best use of state lands.
Above all, the commissioner must continue to manage trust lands for the benefit of schools, universities and local governments.
Any attempt to end this program and lock away trust lands would lead to costly lawsuits and disrupt rural economies that depend on natural resources. Such extremism would likely be met by an extreme response from those already upset about increasingly Seattle-centric state governance.
Trust land was preserved when the state was created in 1889. Land in every county was set aside to financially support K-12 schools, and additional land was provided to support other public institutions.
Under this program, enshrined in the state Constitution, 3 million acres continue to generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year. Since 1970, they have generated $8 billion for school construction, universities and county governments.
Clearly, trees will continue to grow and be harvested in Washington to provide lumber, paper and other products. The trust program is sustainable, environmentally sensitive and lucrative. Really, it’s like having a rich uncle who sends checks every year, helping to make ends meet.
Trust revenue is also more important then ever as the state struggles to amply fund education and gears up for a surge of school construction to meet its obligation to reduce class sizes.
Trust lands are not sacred nature preserves, though DNR does manage some of those separately. About 54 percent DNR land is permanently conserved for endangered species, riparian buffers and salmon habitat.
Trust lands include working forests, agricultural lands and aquatic lands.
Think of these forests as large-scale farms — portions are periodically harvested while the rest grows and replenishes. Carefully managed, they will produce forever. They are truly renewable resources.
In addition to funding schools and government, trust lands are economic drivers in rural areas far from the prosperity of Seattle. In these smaller communities, timber harvested from state land supports more than 20,000 jobs and nearly $1 billion in annual wages.
State timber also helps preserve jobs as private lumber companies reduce holdings east of the Cascades.
Lumber produced is a lower-carbon option for building than concrete and steel that might be used otherwise.
Protecting the environment is a top priority for Washingtonians. It can be accomplished by the next lands commissioner without extreme measures that would slash state funding and burn economic opportunity for people across the state.