Aside from the federal government, no one has authority over more of Washington’s landscape than its public lands commissioner.
Responsible for the management of 5.6 million acres of Washington state forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands, the leader of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) must contend with wildfire, climate change and also produce funds for counties and schools that rely on DNR’s land management for revenue.
Incumbent Hilary Franz, who emerged from a crowded field in 2016, faces a handful of relative political newcomers this election.
She boasts a sizable financial advantage. The Democrat has raised more than $820,000 this cycle, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission website.
Only one contender, Republican Sue Kuehl Pederson, of Lakewood, has raised financial campaign support — more than $25,000. Kuehl Pederson ran for state Senate in 2016, but lost in District 19 to Democrat Dean Takko.
Franz, a land use and environmental attorney before her election, says she began her term focused on wildfires and their root cause — unhealthy forests.
Franz touted success in persuading the state Legislature to provide tens of millions more in funding for firefighting and forest health projects, including preventive thinning and prescribed fire.
“The investments we’ve secured in forest health and wildfires are the largest in Washington state history,” Franz said, though her proposals for a dedicated wildfire suppression fund, paid for with insurance surcharges, did not gain traction with lawmakers.
If elected, Franz promised to continue work on wildfire prevention, building resilience to climate change and developing economic opportunity on state lands to boost rural communities and grow job opportunities.
Many rural communities rely on timber revenue from logging on DNR lands, and Franz drew criticism, and lawsuits, after the Board of Natural Resources last winter reduced the amount of timber allowed for harvest. The agency anticipates the amount of timber that can be sustainably harvested on state lands will drop over the next five decades, which could leave DNR in a financial crunch.
Franz wants to broaden DNR’s portfolio, and aims to lease more land for solar, wind, biomass and geothermal projects or for industrial, agricultural and commercial purposes.
DNR inked in 2019 its first solar lease and hosts several wind projects on its land.
Some rural economies did not recover after the last recession and now face unprecedented unemployment, Franz said.
“Local governments, because of COVID-19, are going to be hurting more significantly,” Franz added. “We can be more effective at generating revenue for local governments and schools.”
Kuehl Pederson, who is now retired, but once worked as a fisheries biologist and a power manager, said her varied career experiences would help prepare her to head DNR.
“I don’t know anybody who has worked in fisheries, forests and the power industry. I’ve worked in all those,” Kuehl Pederson said.
Kuehl Pederson said “horrific” wildfire seasons drew her into the race.
“The tendency is to blame those on climate change, but I’m starting to think the nonmanagement of our forest is not only the reason for bigger and worse fires, but maybe even the reason for our own climate change in Washington,” Kuehl Pederson said.
When asked if she agreed with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s consensus assessment that greenhouse gases, driven by fossil fuel combustion, are warming the world, Kuehl Pederson said she felt that climate science was clouded by politics.
“I’m a little skeptical when I look at any research. How much is the real data and the real science and how much is the politics? And, I just don’t know with climate change. I just don’t know. There’s too much uncertainty for me,” Kuehl Pederson said, adding that the U.S. has led the world in developing pollution-controlling technologies. “I don’t think we are the problem.”
Kuehl Pederson said forests were managed better when she was younger and when trees were considered crops to be regularly harvested.
She said a lack of commercial logging on DNR lands has allowed dense, thick forests to proliferate and uptake more groundwater and allow fires to spread more rapidly.
To slow them down, Kuehl Pederson said she would ramp up commercial timber harvest to “thin out the trees, reduce the level of fuel load in the forest. That might create a few jobs. There would be more logging going on.”
Kuehl Pederson said she would oppose the “trashing” of streams with potential for salmon habitat or logging that creates erosion on steep slopes.
Kuehl Pederson said clear-cut logging has faced “discrimination” and that it provides habitat benefits for some species, adding that she did not support leaving once-logged forests alone in hopes of developing old-growth habitat for wildlife.
“You can thoughtfully re-create old growth,” Kuehl Pederson said, pointing to a project by The Nature Conservancy that is testing whether active management of trees in the Ellsworth Creek area will create old-growth habitat more quickly.
Kuehl Pederson said she admired Franz for her ability to bring people together, but said DNR as an agency is too process-oriented and restrictive with regulations.
“I totally believe in Mother Nature’s ability to keep going. We make mistakes, or a volcano blows up, Mother Nature comes in and has a wonderful way of healing our land,” Kuehl Pederson said. “I think we don’t have to be worried about every little thing, every little action.”
She said DNR needs to get better at providing “user friendly” information for land owners.
Kuehl Pederson said she opposed expanding wind projects on DNR land until there were better options for electricity storage.
Republicans Cameron Whitney, Steve Sharon and Maryam Abasbarzy will also appear on the ballot, along with Democrat Frank Wallbrown and Libertarian Kelsey Reyes. None of those candidates has reported any financial contributions.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Aug. 4 primary will advance to the Nov. 3 general election.