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News / Politics / Election

WA public lands commissioner race attracts unusually crowded field

A variety of candidates, including former 3rd District Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, are seeking the statewide office that oversees public-owned lands and firefighting efforts.

By Mai Hoang, Crosscut
Published: July 8, 2024, 6:05am

The average Washington voter is going to find the race to be Washington’s next Commissioner of Public Lands to be rather confusing.

First, five Democrats are on the primary ballot and one of the two Republicans in the race is a former congressional representative. Second, few people really know what the lands commissioner does and what qualifies someone to hold this job. And third, some people may be wondering: Why are so many Washington agency leaders elected and not appointed?

This story will answer the first two concerns. The third could be the subject of a book.

After Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz announced last spring that she would not seek a third term and instead run for governor (and later, U.S. Congress), many Democrats jumped at the opportunity for this statewide office.

One of them – Dave Upthegrove, chair of the King County Council, a former state legislator and third-place finisher in the 2016 lands commissioner race – understands why.

There was also a flurry of interest from Democrats in 2016, when then-Commissioner Peter Goldmark, also a Democrat, announced just weeks before the filing deadline he would not run for a third term. After a whirlwind campaign that lasted just nine weeks, Republican Steve McLaughlin won the primary with Franz placing second to move on to the general election. Franz would ultimately prevail in 2016 and was re-elected in 2020.

“It was a blur,” Upthegrove remembers.

This time around he has had more time to build a base on Democratic support. Upthegrove has endorsements from numerous lawmakers, former Gov. Chris Gregoire and former Commissioner Goldmark. And he has raised the most money in the race — more than $463,000 as of June 28.

The elected leader of the Department of Natural Resources oversees nearly 6 million acres of state-owned public lands and the state firefighting force.

Upthegrove is looking to appeal to voters by being an environmentally focused candidate who will not succumb to industry interest.

“The world has continued to change,” Upthegrove said about the eight years between his two runs for lands commissioner. “The urgency around climate has done nothing but increase. I’m hopeful the people of this state want someone that’s going to take the climate crisis seriously and prioritize environmental values.”

He is far from the only serious candidate in this race. Three others have generated six figures in contributions: former U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the top Republican in fundraising at $374,528.88; state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege,  D-Port Angeles; and Patrick DePoe, a Democrat who works as director of tribal relations for the Department of Natural Resources. And all three have numerous endorsements.

Van De Wege is third in contributions with more than $295,000 as of June 28. He notes that he served as chair of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee and has a 25-year career as a firefighter. DNR mobilizes the state’s response to wildfires and also spends the off season on fire prevention work. Van De Wege’s base of support includes firefighting and union communities.

“I’ve been there putting the wildland fires out,” he said. “I’ve breathed the smoke. I know the tactics. I’ve been in the fire camps. I know the firefighting community. I know the labor aspects of it.”

DePoe, former Makah Tribal Council leader from Neah Bay, said he offers tribal natural resource knowledge and best practices he gained while growing up on the coastal reservation. He also has professional experience as a commercial fisherman and land manager. DePoe seeks to be the first Native American elected to statewide office in Washington and has strong tribal backing. Commissioner Franz, who hired him as director of tribal relations in 2023, has endorsed him.

“It’s unfortunate we’re in 2024, and there’s never been a statewide-elected Native American, especially when we’re talking about land management,” DePoe said. He’s third among Democrats and fourth overall with more than $151,000 in contributions as of June 28.

Rounding out the Democratic field is Jeralee Anderson, a councilwoman in Redmond who runs a nonprofit that studies the sustainability of transportation projects, and Allen Lebovitz, who is DNR’s wildland fire and forest resilience liaison.

The Republican field is small but has mighty name recognition. Herrera Beutler represented the 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington from 2011 to 2022 and Sue Kuehl Pederson faced Franz in the general election in 2020.

Herrera Beutler was primaried from the right in the 2022 congressional election after she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Since then, she’s stayed out of politics but decided to run for the lands commissioner position after realizing she could tap into her leadership and knowledge gained from crafting legislation related to forestry and natural resource issues in Congress. She seeks to provide a different approach and perspective to this role especially in addressing the increase in wildfire activity. Three of the last four commissioners elected, dating back to 1993, have been Democrats.

“It’s single-party ideas coming into this role,” she said. “I think it’s time for some balance.”

Kuehl Pederson has frequently referenced her scientific background and extensive natural resource career, which includes stints as a power manager with Seattle City Light and Grays Harbor PUD and as a fisheries biologist for the Department of Fisheries and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And she hopes to build on her 2020 run.

“I received 1.68 million votes in 2020,” she said. “I wanted to honor those votes by making another effort.”

While Herrera Beutler had raised far more money than Kuehl Pederson, who had raised nearly $19,000 as of June 28, Republicans are split on their endorsements.

Kuehl Pederson received endorsements from the Washington State Republican Party and several county Republican committees. Herrera Beutler has received numerous endorsements from the Mainstream Republicans of Washington and numerous Republican leaders, including U.S. Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Yakima; Cathy McMorris Rogers, R-Spokane; and former Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland. Notably, she also received an endorsement from Joe Kent, her former opponent in the 3rd Congressional District race.

Addressing wildfire

Not surprisingly, the top candidates prioritize addressing devastating and life-threatening wildfires that have become more commonplace statewide, even in “wet” Western Washington.

In 2021, the Legislature approved $500,000 over four bienniums to prevent and fight forest fires. Last year, nearly 1,900 fires burned across Washington, the second-highest number of ignitions in state history. However, those fires burned 165,000 acres, well below the 10-year average of 470,000.

Candidates generally agree that this was an essential piece of legislation, and they will focus on refining how money and resources are used to address wildfires.

Van De Wege wants the state to increase prescribed burning to reduce materials that could fuel or spread a wildfire. He said DNR and Ecology have resisted additional activity because of federal clean air laws. Still, he notes that other states have remained compliant despite doing far more prescribed burns. He also proposed tapping into the existing incarcerated workforce to do this work. In addition to generating savings that could help after finishing a sentence, they would also benefit from working outside in nature, he said.

He also proposed a plan for acquiring and maintaining aircraft used in fires, namely shifting from leasing to purchasing and lending out the planes to neighboring communities when not in use to generate revenue to cover the higher upfront cost.

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DePoe also supports prescribed burns and thinning trees and believes tribes can help identify areas for burns and thinning.

Republican candidates have also talked about removing dead, diseased trees, which they argued have fueled fires. And that such trees can help the state get current on its sustainable harvest schedule.

The discussion around fire prevention is also intertwined with the ongoing discussion regarding state-permitted timber harvests, especially on public lands. DNR has to balance two seemingly contrasting tasks: Regulating the timber harvests in the state and generating revenue for its trust fund — primarily used to fund public services and school districts in rural areas.

Environmental groups have expressed concern about harvesting legacy forests, which are defined as mature forests that have naturally regrown after logging activity or other disturbances, such as fire or landslide. They argue that legacy forests are essential in storing carbon and maintaining the area’s biodiversity. Removing trees from such forests would negatively impact species and plants in the area. They’ve urged the DNR to more actively regulate timber harvest on public lands.

In 2022, in response to such concerns, the DNR launched a program to lease lands for carbon sequestration. The timber industry took issue, stating the agency disregarded other potential impacts, such as wildfire, and sued the agency. However, a ruling from the Thurston County Superior Court said the agency could manage the lands as it sees fit.

Candidates have diverse views around this issue.

Herrera Beutler feels the prevailing practice of letting forests grow to preserve habitat and species has resulted in decaying forests and rural communities missing out on much-needed revenue.  She reinforces this opinion by adding that science shows that removing unhealthy trees can contribute to forest health.

“That’s money supposed to go to schools; it’s being held up in the name of environmental interest,” she said.

Kuehl Pederson said she would like the private sector to get involved in clearing the forests. Like Herrera Buetler, she believes removing dead trees is critical for preventing wildfires and improving the overall health of state forests.

She also believes the timber harvested can provide raw materials for building additional housing. Although she understands past practices negatively impacted the environment, she thinks the state can sustain a timber industry while being environmentally conscious.

“I think we can step in and manage our lands responsibly and get [the] timber industry going,” she said.

As the self-proclaimed “green” candidate, Upthegrove is calling for legacy forests to be excluded from DNR harvest activity. If elected, he plans to sign an order preventing activity from these forests, which he estimates is about 3% of state-owned forests. He also has declined contributions from the timber industry as he felt that would conflict with DNR’s task of regulating timber harvest.

Van De Wege said he isn’t for arbitrarily increasing timber harvest, but simply wants DNR to be current on the sustainable timber harvest levels it had established for itself. He notes that more than half of state forests remain untouched by timber harvests, and there are ample examples of communities negatively impacted by unhealthy forests because of fewer timber harvests.

“Taking trees offline … creates more problems than it solves,” he said.

DePoe said there are already practices and guidelines to ensure proper regulation of sustainable timber harvesting and comprehensive forest management including the state’s Forest and Fish law. He notes the Forest Practices Board within DNR is currently tasked with examining how to keep forest areas sustainable.

He is concerned that over-restricting what trees can be cut could create a number of issues, including an increase in fuel for wildfires and a delay in revenue needed to operate schools and other services. At the same time, he wants to ensure that regulations are applied to preserve young trees that contribute positively to forest health and provide habitat.

Upthegrove feels the percentage of forestland restricted from harvest is “squishy” as it includes trees serving as stream buffers and state forestland that is actually parking lots. He believes that even after removing mature forests from harvest, plenty of trees will still be available.

He notes that 70% of state-permitted forestry activity occurs on private timberlands, and some lands might become available for sale. He proposes using existing state funding streams to purchase those lands, plant trees on them, and use them as a source of timber, allowing more preservation of public forests.

Upthegrove also supports more prescribed burning and thinning activity, especially in Western Washington, where more wildfires are raging.

“Managing 3% [of state-owned forests] for something other than harvests and investing in forest health are not in conflict,” he added.

Additional priorities

Several candidates voiced priorities for better managing public aquatic lands, which have also faced several challenges.

Van De Wege expressed concern about the growing acidification of tidelands, which is deadly to marine species. While dealing with acidification is under the purview of the state Department of Ecology, he believes the DNR can collaborate with the effort to maintain the marine environment.

Upthegrove noted that DNR has an aquatic land restoration team tasked with completing actions, such as planting eelgrass that provides habitat and shelter for many species, including salmon. This program maintains species and the ecosystem around the state’s aquatic lands and he wants to push the Legislature to designate more funds for that program.

“I think it would be so heartbreaking to be the generation that lost orca in the Puget Sound or see the iconic king salmon fade away,” he said.

Herrera Beutler noted that her former congressional district includes coastal communities, and she’s seen firsthand those communities impacted by invasive species impacting clams, oysters and other marine species. She said collaborative efforts with all affected parties, including farmers and tribes, are vital to addressing this ongoing issue.

Both DePoe and Upthegrove mentioned a desire to incorporate diverse voices as DNR does its work.

Upthegrove said he’s found joy in immersing himself in the communities of color and with refugees in his King County Council district, and he wants to bring that diversity to DNR. He shares that some 100 standing entities provide input to DNR. He believes there’s ample opportunity to incorporate diverse voices, including the ones he’s represented over the last two decades.

He will also work with women- and minority-owned businesses to decrease the barriers for securing contracts with DNR.

He notes that DNR was exempt from a state law that requires environmental agencies to conduct a racial justice assessment of significant agency actions. Still, he plans to do the review anyway.  “It’s important to approach this work with the same sense of urgency as we approach our environmental work,” he said.

Upthegrove came out as gay the year he ran for the state Legislature in the early 2000s and was one of the few out LGBTQ+ legislators. He seeks to be the first openly LGBTQ+ candidate elected to statewide office.

DePoe said he will work to better incorporate tribal knowledge and experience in natural resources into DNR’s work. He said tribes are impacted by DNR’s actions and management of public lands and need to be at the table.

He said he’s heard other candidates talk about working with tribes. As a former leader of his tribe, DePoe believes he can take that effort further, including building on his work as a tribal relations director for DNR. He says overwhelming tribal backing — and his own background as a former tribal leader — shows he is best suited to incorporate tribal voices in policy discussions.

“I don’t want tribal nations left out of the conversation when we talk about environmental policy that impacts their way of life,” he said.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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