Washington state’s forestlands got a break this summer with limited damage from wildfires, following two record-breaking years of wildfires. In 2015 alone, wildfires burned more than a million acres and resulted in the deaths of three members of a U.S. Forest Service firefighting crew near Twisp.
But even in the face of recent devastation, it’s been a challenge for Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, chief of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, to wrest enough funding from the Legislature to prepare the state’s forestlands and limit the danger of fire through thinning and other forest health measures. Goldmark sought $20 million for that work in 2014 and got $4 million. He had a little more success in 2015, getting half of his $20 million request.
With Goldmark now stepping down from office, that job will now fall either to Republican Steve McLaughlin or Democrat Hilary Franz. And the request will come no easier for the next DNR chief as lawmakers’ focus will primarily be on education funding.
But the state’s public lands, ironically, provide some of the funding on which the state’s K-12 education relies. Franz and McLaughlin are vying to manage a state resource that includes 5.6 million acres of lands — 3 million in forest and other lands and 2.6 million in aquatic lands — that are managed for timber and other resource production and leases, conservation and recreation.
The office also regulates forestry on private and other nonfederal and nontribal forest lands through the State Forest Practices Board and is responsible for providing geological information — now being boosted by lidar mapping of geological hazards — to local governments, industry and others.
McLaughlin, who makes his home in Seabeck, is a retired Navy commander whose final post during a 25-year military career was as executive officer at Naval Station Everett. McLaughlin offers direct experience that would be useful to the DNR post, which includes leading the state’s largest on-call firefighting agency.
He has served as an incident command instructor, training more than 2,000 firefighters and other first responders. During his time in Everett he also was responsible for management of public lands under the base’s jurisdiction, including preservation of an old-growth forest managed for recreation and other forestland with limited resource production. McLaughlin also notably served as a political military adviser during the Bosnian war in the mid-1990s and participated in writing the Kosovo peace agreement.
Franz is an attorney specializing in environmental and land use law with a background that includes 20 years of work and advocacy on environmental, local government and public policy issues. Along with serving as a Bainbridge Island city council member, Franz most recently served five years as the executive director of Futurewise, an environmental and growth management advocacy group.
She has served on numerous boards and councils including the Puget Sound Regional Council’s growth management and economic development boards, the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council and the Washington Environmental Council.
Both Franz and McLaughlin stressed the importance of improving the health of forestlands and investing in work to make them less susceptible to wildfire, disease and insect infestation. And both support the role that timber and other resource production play in providing revenue for public schools and other accounts.
Franz has come to that position more recently. Earlier in her campaign, a candidate questionnaire she completed indicated support for changing state law to find other sources of support for schools than timber harvest from state lands. Franz now says she backs continuing timber production, but said she would seek to diversify the use of state lands, specifically to increase leases for clean energy sources, such as wind and solar.
Franz also said she would pursue land swaps or sales that would allow the state to consolidate land to increase potential uses.
McLaughlin and Franz offer specific strengths that would be useful leading an agency whose management will only become more complex and demanding as the state’s environment and resources confront climate change. But we believe Franz, with her background and past government experience, would be most effective in making the agency’s case for greater investment to the Legislature.