Five candidates make their pitch to become DNR chief

Public Lands Commissioner candidates, from left, Mary Verner, Karen Porterfield, Steve Nielson, Steve McLaughlin, and Hilary Franz at Olympia High School on Monday.
Public Lands Commissioner candidates, from left, Mary Verner, Karen Porterfield, Steve Nielson, Steve McLaughlin, and Hilary Franz at Olympia High School on Monday. rberg@theolympian.com

More than 100 people came out for a forum late Monday in Olympia to hear candidates for the state’s commissioner of public lands.

The position, although acknowledged at the forum as “down ballot,” is in charge of deciding how to protect Washington’s natural resources and provide funding for school construction. It also is in charge of containing wildfires.

Incumbent Commissioner Peter Goldmark is not running for re-election.

Five of the seven candidates on the ballot — Mary Verner, Karen Porterfield, Steve Nielson, Steve McLaughlin and Hilary Franz — fielded questions for 90 minutes at the forum organized by the League of Women Voters at Olympia High School. Dave Upthegrove and John Stillings did not attend.

During the forum, the candidates each had one minute to answer questions they weren’t given in advance. They also had an additional 45 seconds to challenge other candidates.

Karen Porterfield, a Seattle University professor and Democrat, highlighted her commitment to collaborative campaigns and inclusive decision-making. She said she had Republicans and Democrats on her team and didn’t want more or less government but “the right-sized government.”

She said she would hold monthly public forums throughout the state to discuss the problems Washington is facing, such as unhealthy forests and the need for additional funding for school construction. She supports ecotourism and alternative energies, such as wind and solar power. She said the focus is not on re-cutting the pie, it’s growing the pie.

Hilary Franz, an environmental attorney and Democrat, said she would challenge urban areas to out-green one another. She said it is important to have people connect with nature from a young age so they understand the need to protect it.

Franz said there needs to be more enforcement of current forestry rules and regulations, and communities need to be educated on what to look for to help report problems to professionals. She said morale is low at DNR, and it is important to reward foresters who are doing a good job.

Steven Nielson, an astronautical engineer and Libertarian, focused on the importance of using new technologies to predict and control fires. When asked about the divide between Eastern and Western Washington, he said, “There is no divide — we are all one state.”

Nielsen said working outside of the two major parties gives him a leg up on the other candidates because he has no friends or enemies on either side, so he can build bridges. He encouraged voters to look into the benefits of industrial hemp and to “literally grow” Washington’s economy.

Steve McLaughlin, a former Navy officer and Republican, said “man belongs in the forest” and encouraged voters to create jobs for rural communities by putting “forests choked with unused timber” back into lumber production. He said his leadership abilities set him apart from the other candidates.

He told the audience he wants to eliminate the adversarial relationship between foresters and recreationalists. He said he would use sporting goods stores to educate the public on how to be safe and respectful while using public lands.

Nielsen used his challenge time to ask McLaughlin to explain further why he would make a rush decision to implement the aquatic lands Habitat Conservation Plan, which has been stalled. McLaughlin responded that planning is a process, and it is sometimes necessary to implement a plan and then make changes to it.

Mary Verner, the former mayor of Spokane and a Democrat, said there is no divide between Eastern and Western Washington and that she has worked on many efforts that have brought apparent adversaries to agreement. “There is no ‘other,’ ” she said. “We are all in this together.”

Verner, who was hired by Goldmark in 2013 as DNR’s deputy supervisor for wildfire and administration, also fended off criticism from Nielson that the DNR is not using advanced technologies to fight wildfires.

The top two candidates will advance to to the November general election.