The political differences in Washington state have long been characterized as a condition of geography, with the Cascades representing both a physical and ideological split. But election cycles over the last decade have made clear that this is not a matter of east-versus-west belief systems; it reflects a growing rural-urban political divide.

Once a reliably blue stronghold for moderate Democrats, the 19th District (which encompasses Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific and Wahkiakum counties) went decidedly red in 2020. Republican candidates successfully capitalized on the anxiety and frustration experienced by many in rural Washington who believe that most Olympia policymakers who represent urban areas have little regard for how state decisions impact the less populated communities.

Until this year, former state Sen. Dean Takko, who had served the 19th District since 2015, and I represented the last rural Democrats in southwest Washington. The 24th district on the Olympic Peninsula is now the only legislative district served by rural Democrats in the state.

This shift didn’t come about in one election cycle. And what is happening in Washington state mirrors what is occurring throughout the rest of America. The urban-rural rift has been building incrementally as rural economies experience the cumulative unintended consequences brought about by urban-majority legislators.

The natural resources economy — and specifically the timber sector in Washington state — is such an example. Policymakers have attempted to limit the sustainable forestry sector in an effort to address climate change even though it is the urban centers that create the highest carbon emissions per capita and yet lack the vegetation and trees to uptake those emissions. 

It would appear that the urban tears of guilt seem to fall on rural economies.

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Strengthening traditional natural resource economies is a virtue, not a vice. And natural resource jobs in the modern forestry sector are part of our future and one part of the climate change solution.

There is no doubt that climate change and hotter, drier summers have contributed to the catastrophic wildfires in recent years. But forest health and an abundance of fuel caused by past fire suppression and reduced harvest policies also are factors.

Yes, trees absorb carbon dioxide gas from the atmosphere and sequester that carbon in the trunk, branches, roots and leaves. It also is true that the carbon remains in the wood long after it is harvested and continues to be stored throughout the wood product’s life span. Thus, wood buildings and other durable wood products like lumber for our homes, furniture, utility poles and pilings are carbon stores.

These wood-based products provide an added benefit when used in place of materials that require more energy and create more fossil fuel emissions during production like plastic, concrete and steel.

The reality is we need wood, and Washington state has arguably some of the most rigorous sustainable forestry standards in the world. The alternative would be to import wood from elsewhere, possibly parts of the world that adhere to lower environmental standards and harvest in a far less sustainable manner.

Washington’s forestry sector is experiencing a renaissance as the No. 2 softwood lumber producer in the U.S. coupled with the growing application of innovative wood products like cross-laminated timber. And as consumer demands for more renewable resources like wood increase, Washington state is poised to be a national leader in the sustainable building materials movement.

I got involved in Democratic politics in 1980 when I caucused for Jimmy Carter. I believe in labor and the natural resource industries. I am pro-choice and consider myself an LGBTQ ally.

And I believe that there is a place for me and other rural voters within the Democratic Party. But for that to happen, we need reasoned and evenhanded approaches to state policies that consider the needs of both rural and urban communities.