'A Public Trust'

Washington lands commissioner race draws crowd of Democrats

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

This fall’s race for Washington’s commissioner of public lands—an office that oversees the state’s largest firefighting force and 5.6 million acres of land—is hotly contested since no incumbent is on the ballot.

Commissioner Peter Goldmark will not seek reelection to the quietly influential office. As the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, the commissioner is responsible for healthy public aquatic lands, forests, parks and more. The department leases land to provide critical school construction money, and its firefighting efforts are a key line of defense against destructive summertime wildfires, too.

The department has a big influence on fishing, timber and agriculture—three classic Washington industries threatened by drought, wildfires and ocean acidification that could be worsened by climate change.

So far, Democrats make up the bulk of the hopefuls to replace Goldmark. Of those, former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove, and environmental attorney Hilary Franz might be the most familiar faces. Other candidates Seattle University professor Karen Porterfield and John Stillings, both Democrats, plus former Navy officer Steve McLaughlin, a Republican, and Libertarian Steven Nielson are also in the race.

Notably, all of the candidates agree climate change poses a threat to the state and state lands, all support a future renewable and clean energy, and all cite the health of the state’s forests and shoreline as pressing concerns for DNR. Democrats go further, and stress the need to develop alternative funding mechanisms for state schools in order to relieve over-harvest of forests on public land.

Upthegrove spent 12 years championing environmental causes as a state representative in Washington’s Legislature. He led the push for laws that cleaned up toxic soils in playgrounds and created a state agency for cleaning and protecting Puget Sound, he said. Upthegrove has been on the County Council since 2013 and said he would be the best-positioned candidate to work with the Legislature. He said his main aim would be addressing climate change, often with a racial justice lens, in a department that needs a “fresh start.”

“I think there are some big, bold, aggressive steps we can be taking to address climate change,” he said, such as offering to be a plaintiff in state lawsuits against polluters.
Challenged on his positions at a forum in Bellingham this week hosted by the League of Women Voters, Upthegrove noted that while the mission of lands commissioner is to derive revenues on behalf of state schools and public trusts, “I will oppose leasing of aquatic lands for coal export terminals. We need to respect tribal treaty rights and create jobs by investing in environmental cleanup and renewable energy, not by building massive coal export terminals.”

Verner has worked for the Department of Natural Resources since her time as mayor, namely leading the department’s firefighting force. Last year, more than 1 million acres, or about 1,570 square miles, burned across the state, with some calling into question the department’s response.

Verner said she has more firefighting and fire suppression experience than her opponents and highlighted the decade she spent working for the Spokane tribe on fish and wildlife habit restoration and other environmental issues before the DNR. She said she is positioned better than her opponents to work with the federal government and tribes on many issues such as forest health.

She’s also the only announced candidate from Eastern Washington, where wildfires are most destructive.

“I do have a statewide perspective, and that’s going to be really important,” Verner said.

Franz has spent decades working with local governments, nonprofits, citizen groups and others on land use and environmental law issues, and was a Bainbridge Island city councilwoman for three years. She has most recently been the executive director for Futurewise, a public interest group that aims to promote city growth while protecting farmland, forests and shorelines.

She’s influenced state legislation such as last year’s $16.1 billion transportation package, and said she specializes in land-use policy that works to show people the link between the environment and economics.

“My experience is understanding the policies, understanding the science of farms, forests and our waterways,” she said. “And being able to bring stakeholders together who historically might have been divided on these issues.”

Porterfield joined the race early, intending to challenge Goldmark before he announced he wouldn’t seek reelection. Until recently, she led the seven in campaign contributions, and currently stands at $109,347, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Others caught up quickly, with Franz surpassing all in fundraising at $153,257. Upthegrove has raised $112,381, according to latest filings.

Porterfield, Verner, Upthegrove, and Franz all stressed the DNR should work to diversify some of its money-making portfolio with things like wind power. They also called for better proactive action to make sure forest fires can’t grow as large as they did last year.

The top two vote-getters in the Aug. 2 primary will move on to the general election Nov. 8.

Cascadia Weekly is a member of Associated Press Newsfinder. This article was updated to reflect candidate positions at a forum in Bellingham on July 18. The forum may be viewed on BTV-10 or at the City of Bellingham website,

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