The next Washington state commissioner of public lands will inherit a handful of natural-resource challenges in a world that also must adapt to climate change. Democrat Hilary Franz and Republican Steve McLaughlin bring different backgrounds and skills to that task.
Based on her long experience working on land-use issues from the community and environmentalist sides, and her skill bringing parties together outside of a courtroom, we think Franz is the best choice to succeed Peter Goldmark, a Democrat who chose not to seek a third term.
The commissioner of public lands is the top manager of millions of acres of state-owned trust lands and regulator of private logging throughout Washington. Agency decisions affect industries, communities and the environment, and Franz has been working in those arenas for about 20 years as a lawyer.
Many forest tracts around the state are diseased, and many more are going up in smoke due to wildfires that may only get worse as global warming intensifies. We trust an environmentalist more than a candidate like McLaughlin, who is backed by timber companies, to make the right call in close cases.
That said, McLaughlin wants to change the culture at the Department of Natural Resources, which is arguably insular and top-down-oriented. McLaughlin, a former military commander and defense contractor employee, brings the organizational skills and has managed large numbers of people; he wants to ensure that managers at DNR have the information and tools needed to carry out duties.
Franz has similar goals but McLaughlin has the edge in this area. Franz has served as a city council member for Bainbridge Island and managed smaller organizations such as the advocacy group Futurewise.
The two candidates do share some broad goals for the agency — from improving forest health and reducing wildfire risks by selectively logging to boosting rural economies, helping owners of small tracts of timber that are disproportionately hit by environmental rules, and improving revenue from state-owned marine, agricultural and forest lands.
Given the complexity of the challenges, Franz’s background at multiple levels of government make her better suited for the role. The Portland native has a long family history that touches on farming and forestry, and her recent skills looking for land-use solutions around the state are well adapted to the realities of the job. These skills include working with the Legislature where Franz did lobbying and advocacy work.
We think Franz is further along in thinking about climate change and the way public lands can and should adapt to that larger reality.
And on another challenge, Franz has a larger view of why the state’s timber trust lands are failing to keep up with funding for K-12 public school construction needs. The Legislature has had to subsidize the state share of construction costs from other sources in recent years. That subsidy likely needs to grow as school districts add buildings to to reduce student-to-teacher ratios in classrooms and answer the McCleary court ruling on full-funding of K-12 basic education.
Franz sees wider potential for other alternative energy sources on state lands. She also has experience dealing with land targeted for conversion to development or other uses.
McLaughlin has called for a baseline audit, which sounds like a good idea to see where greater harvests might be feasible. He has ideas for the potential of biomass in small communities that have been hurt by the long-term transition away from an economy based on exploiting natural resources.
Both candidates may bring some baggage — Franz through her association with groups that have sued public agencies and slowed decision making, and McLaughlin through his association with far-right activists who dislike public ownership of lands.
McLaughlin was part of a group that had ties to protesters who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. But he said he only supported a pair of Oregonians who were to face retrial and did not stand with the armed radicals who seized the refuge in a protest of federal land ownership. He has provided evidence that he disavowed the occupation at the time and says he supports public ownership of natural resource lands.
Whoever wins this race must build on Goldmark’s work to better coordinate fire responses from local, state and federal organizations that can provide emergency staffing. Goldmark worked to reduce fire risk and assist with the equipment needs of local first responders.
The next commissioner also needs to help DNR overcome its insular reputation on other natural resource issues. Building better relationships with other state agencies that share overlapping duties is a must.
Franz has the passion, dexterity of mind and sense of purpose to handle these activities in a manner that we trust.