The race for the state’s top lands’ chief is centered on wildfire prevention, as Washington emerges from a brutal fire season.
The state commissioner of public lands heads the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is responsible for managing 5.6 million acres of Washington’s forest, range, agricultural, aquatic and commercial lands. The commissioner serves a four-year term.
DNR also is the state’s biggest fire fighter, responsible for fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of private, state and tribal forestland. Both candidates say wildfire is the biggest issue in their race.
Candidates’ finances and political experience in the race are lopsided, with an incumbent who is vastly better funded facing a challenger who has never held elected office.
Hilary Franz, the commissioner of public lands, had raised $980,115 for her reelection campaign as of Monday against challenger Sue Kuehl Pederson, who has raised $73,674.
Ask Pederson, a career natural resource manager, why she is running, and she has a two-word answer: “the smoke.”
As wildfires have repeatedly scorched Washington’s forests, Pederson, a fisheries biologist who also has worked as a power manager for Seattle City Light, said she felt called to run.
A sixth-generation Washingtonian born and raised in the Evergreen State, Pederson said the state’s forests are poorly managed.
She grew up in Skamania County and got a good education in local public schools thanks to timber dollars from state lands, Pederson said. “The reason I have had so many opportunities is because my education was rock solid, and that wasbecause of the trees and timber sales; it all ties together,” Pederson said in a phone interview.
But if the state’s forests burn up, that hurts revenues for the schools, she said. In Washington, public school construction is partly funded with revenues from timber sales from state trust lands.
Pederson said she also is concerned about the health effects of smoke as well as the destruction of wildlife habitat by wildfire.
As lands commissioner, Pederson says she would empower local communities to construct fire breaks around their towns and around their houses.
“We really, really have to start, I say yesterday, protecting our towns and ranches and forests,” Pederson said.
“The quickest thing and the easiest thing I have thought of is we should be like the pioneers and drag a plow around a town to create a fire break, create bare dirt; it’s a way to slow down a fire and make it easier to extinguish.”
She also favors cutting forests into defensible blocks. “I would figure out how to make a big expanse of forest into segments so each segment had a fire break around it.”
Hilary Franz is taking a different approach, starting with continuing her efforts before the Legislature to increase the funding available for people and equipment to fight fires, “so we are not competing with other states with more significant fires and more people at risk.”
She also has devised a strategic fire protection plan to treat tens of thousands of acres of forest every year, to make them less vulnerable to fire by removing dead and diseased trees.
Franz also wants to increase economic development opportunities in rural communities. State lands can be utilized to generate revenue in a range of ways in addition to timber harvest, Franz said, from alternative energy development to wine grapes on state agricultural lands.
She also wants to expand defenses against fire beyond the woods to communities at risk of wildlife, such as Leavenworth, Roslyn and Twisp, with fire breaks and prescribed burns.
She sees a role for the agency in identifying high-priority areas for purchase to keep land in working forest rather than converting to development.
In a second term, Franz also would seek to initiate watershed-scale planning for better success in salmon recovery, using the state’s various ownerships, from aquatic lands all the way to co-management with federal lands in the high country, to create holistic management to benefit fish in a “Trees to Sea” strategy.
Franz wants to pilot the program in the Snohomish River watershed, and if it makes a difference, expand the approach to the Puyallup and Nisqually rivers for the benefit of forests, water quality, salmon and the southern resident orcas that depend on them.
“That’s why I’m running, because we have an unbelievable exciting new effort,” she said. “We have work to do.”