Race for DNR spot still looks uncertain

By GENE JOHNSON

Associated Press

Going into September’s primary, Mike Lowry’s name seemed big enough to ensure his election to state lands commissioner.

Now, the question is whether it’s too big. Or, at least, too heavy.

Lowry, a Democrat, was the state’s governor from 1993-97, but decided against a second term after paying nearly $100,000 to an aide who accused him of sexual harassment.

In the primary, Lowry received 45,000 fewer votes than Pierce County Executive Doug Sutherland, a Republican who is taking his first shot at statewide office.

"For Lowry to lose to a guy who has never run for anything bigger than countywide is very surprising," said Republican analyst Randy Pepple.

Lowry and Sutherland are bidding to replace Jennifer Belcher, a Democrat who decided not to seek a third term. Lowry’s campaign had a late start; he did not join the race until summer. Sutherland began campaigning in January.

The outcome of the general election may depend on how much support Lowry can take from his rival for the nomination, state Sen. Georgia Gardner, who won 145,000 votes in the primary. The state Women’s Political Caucus, which supported Gardner, has refused to endorse Lowry.

At issue is who will oversee the state’s 1,400-employee Department of Natural Resources, which controls 5.6 million acres of public land. About 2.2 million acres are forests that the state logs. Revenue from the logging helps pay to build schools, and revenue from other lands, such as from leasing shellfish grounds, support other public needs.

The department also regulates logging on private land.

Both candidates agree the need for money to build schools puts too much pressure on the state’s forests.

Logging once paid for two-thirds of the state’s school construction costs, but with Washington’s population increasing, it now pays for just one-third.

"We just need to get off this idea that the way to pay for schools is to increase harvesting," Lowry said. "It’s terribly unfair to future generations, and it won’t work."

Lowry suggests using surplus money from a state general fund account to pay the bulk of school-building costs.

Sutherland says he would use a portion of logging revenues every year to create a trust fund. Eventually, the trust fund could become big enough that its interest would cover the state’s school construction needs, he said.

Both say they want the state to harvest timber responsibly, that is, no faster than it grows.

But neither is certain how much logging the state should do. While Lowry says the state should almost definitely cut fewer trees, he also agrees with Sutherland that the department needs to retake its inventory of forestland before making a decision.

Sutherland has criticized Belcher for cutting fewer trees than the state’s own figures show it can.

For Sutherland, a top priority is the health of the department itself. He warns that revenue from state lands helps pay DNR’s administrative costs, and when the department makes less money from the land, it has less money to manage the land.

He suggests the department is up to $35 million in the red, has nearly 200 unfilled jobs and is severely micromanaged. He says he would examine how decisions are made and how the department should be rearranged.

"The department is in disarray. Morale is at an all time low," he said.

In his campaign, Sutherland has not raised the allegations of sexual harassment against Lowry. But many consider it an issue.

"When Mike is popular he’s very popular, and when he’s not popular, he’s very not popular," said Democratic analyst Cathy Allen, vice president of the Women’s Political Caucus.

Allen also notes, however, that Lowry had a late start to his campaign and that he might have gained more momentum after the primary.

Also in the race is Libertarian Steve Layman, who has received the support of former Democratic candidate Jim O’Donnell. O’Donnell won 6 percent of the vote in the primary. Layman, who has a degree in zoology, won 3 percent.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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