Thursday, October 29, 2020
Oct. 29, 2020

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Candidates for Washington Commissioner of Public Lands disagree on wildfire strategies

By , Columbian staff writer

Wildfires dominated the debate between the two candidates for Washington state Commissioner of Public Lands, as each painted opposing visions for what the office ought to do in order to prevent and fight fires.

In a conversation with The Columbian’s Editorial Board, incumbent Democrat Hilary Franz said she focused on developing the state’s first-ever 10-year wildfire strategic plan. In her first term, Franz prioritized treating public forestland to reduce the amount of fuel — under her direction, she said, they’ve treated 150,000 acres of forest, compared with the 30,000 acres total treated by the department in the seven years prior.

“We’ve made huge progress,” Franz told the editorial board. “We’re also getting at the root of the issue. We have a forest health crisis here in Washington state.”

Her challenger, Republican Sue Kuehl Pederson, is a retired natural resources manager with a background studying fish hatcheries and migration. Kuehl Pederson said that overzealous environmental protections, like the logging restrictions that protect the habitat of the Northern Spotted Owl, have led the current wildfire predicament.

“I’ve been around a while, and I’ve seen a lot happening. I became an environmental biologist because I was so passionate about taking care of lands,” Kuehl Pederson said. “Now, I feel that the environmental movement, if you want to call it that, has become kind of a land grab.”

Kuehl Pederson told the editorial board that she wanted to prioritize “easy, cheap quick solutions that will just stop the fires,” like breaking state forestland up into segments with fire breaks.

Franz countered that there are no easy solutions — the key, she said, is preparation and cooperation. In addition to her department’s work thinning fuel for forest fires, she’s also worked to increase aerial firefighting capacity and develop a strategy for pre-positioning resources around the state.

“When you go to the Legislature, you can’t go with a wish list without showing what you’re asking for is truly going to change the outcome,” Franz said. “That’s why I built those plans, and because of those plans … I’ve now secured the most amount of money ever in Washington state history for wildfire and forest health.”

In her first term as public lands commissioner, Franz continued, Washington became one of the first states to partner with the federal government to help manage federal forestland, because fires don’t care about jurisdiction lines.

“The federal lands are the worst forest health crisis in Washington state,” Franz said, adding that closer partnership between the agencies leads to “greater economies of scale and efficiency.”

Kuehl Pederson criticized the incumbent for a lack of transparency, saying that it’s harder to obtain public records from the Department of Natural Resources under Franz’s leadership.

The Republican said she’d like to see individual landowners more empowered to protect their own lands from wildfires. If elected, she’d also look to revive the logging industry as a more active partner in forest management.

“I want to involve the private sector, I want to involve landowners who are most affected by this fire,” Kuehl Pederson said.

Both Franz and Kuehl Pederson will appear statewide on the Nov. 3 general election ballot.