Surveying the landscape of Washington state
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
This week, if she’s lucky, Hilary Franz may get to summit the Oyster Dome and view the forested trust lands of Blanchard Mountain in autumn. In November, she may become responsible for that expanse and many others as the 14th Commissioner of Public Lands.
As the head of the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the commissioner is responsible for healthy public aquatic reserves, forests, parks and more. The department leases out land to provide money to schools and counties, and its firefighting efforts are a key line of defense against destructive wildfires. The department holds a big influence on fishing, timber and agriculture—three industries central to the state economy that are under siege by drought, wildfires, ocean acidification and climate change.
A Northwest native, Franz was raised by her father and grandparents with close connections to the land. Her grandparents came to Pierce County in the late 1930s, where they raised cattle on hundreds of acres of ranchland—some of which remains in use and with the family to this day.
She has committed 20 years of her career to working on environmental, local government and public policy issues. Prior to leading Futurewise, the state’s leading voice for smart, sustainable land use and transportation policies, Franz represented local governments, nonprofit organizations, and citizen groups on a broad range of land use and environmental law issues.
Hilary Franz: You know this in Bellingham, of course, but I think a lot of the state is really unaware of the importance of an elected commissioner to manage public lands and resources.
The Commissioner of Public Lands is responsible for more than 2.6 million acres of aquatic land, more than 1 million acres of grazing land, and more than 2 million acres of forest lands. On top of that, the Department of Natural Resources sets the regulations on more than 8 million acres of land. You add all that up, it is almost a quarter of the state.
Then you consider the impacts of climate change, which we are seeing the ever-growng presence of, and population growth—one of the fastest growing states in the United States—which is going to put more pressure on working farmlands, working forest lands and our aquatic lands—all of which provide food sources, a healthy environment and strong economy. Then you add in the worst wildfires on record in 2014 and 2015; the worst drought on record in 2014 and 2015.
I truly believe that this position and how we manage our public lands and waterways will determine how we mitigate and adapt to climate change—how we make sure we are going to protect our air and water and food sources with that ever-growing population.
How do we grow strong local economies, from the most urban parts of our state to the most rural: Washington state is very much a natural resource economy.
To me, this is a huge moment in time as we take on those pressing challenges while valuing our natural resources—keep them working and protected for the long-term.
CW: One central mission of DNR is to manage public trust lands for the beneficiaries of those trusts—schools factor large—and that is traditionally viewed purely in financial terms. How do you view that obligation to beneficiaries?
HF: We have a responsibility for managing our public lands, to have that financial return to meet our fiduciary responsibility for schools and education and counties. We also have a responsibility of keeping natural resource industries strong—our agricultural industries and our forest industries.
But as we’ve watched over a million acres of working forest lands lost to conversion—and the same for agricultural lands—our public lands can actually be utilized and seen as a buffer, frankly, for that conversion and sprawl and the pressures that have been placed on working forests and farmlands.
I look at it oftentimes as recognizing those public lands can work in partnership with our private forest and farmlands, to make sure that they all continue to be productive.
CW: It’s often said there are two Washingtons and their goals are frequently in collision. You’ve said the landscapes are different, but values are often the same.
HF: People say the state has this eastern/western divide. I truly believe that, across the state—having worked in Pacific County and Grays Harbor County, all the way to Ferry County, Kitittas, the central Puget Sound area and up the I-5 corridor—I truly believe that our values are very similar. Our landscapes are different.
The key is having that understanding, being able to sit down with people of very different backgrounds, struggling with the same issues we’ve seen year after year within the context of land and water management—farmers and ranchers and tribes with salmon habitat, ports and marinas, all of it—and understand the context of their concerns within the landscape, the economic and environmental challenges, as we work toward longstanding solutions.
One example is Kitittas County, where they have been fighting over water, suffering the worst droughts over the last two years, and a century of over-appropriation of water. There wasn’t enough water for fish habitat, for irrigation and farming, and there wasn’t enough water for people who believe they have water rights. We worked with county commissioners and broad stakeholders and were able to create the first public water bank in Washington state.
You have similar issues and concerns in Whatcom County, and perhaps solutions like these can play a role.
The other piece I bring is I have worked with the Legislature over the past five years to help pass legislation, whether on issues of affordable housing or the largest transportation package in state history—no small achievement.
You have to be able to work with people from all different sides and perspectives. This position requires that.
CW: On the subject of the Legislature, a very large concern in this area is Blanchard Mountain. Some portions of Blanchard are scheduled for clear cuts, but a central portion has been preserved under the Blanchard Forest Strategy agreement. But that requires funding. What will you do to help preserve that portion of Blanchard Mountain?
HF: Let me say up front, I love Blanchard Mountain! This is a classic example where we have people wanting to protect some of our most precious forests, which are critical for habitat, but also it is a beautiful recreation spot. At the same time, we face the challenge of losing more and more of our working forest lands—and not only do we owe a responsibility to beneficiaries, but also the economy.
We got the first portion of the money as appropriations to save that core section, $6.5 million, but we are $7.7 million short.
Everything that I’ve heard is that if this funding does not pass by next session, it will be logged.
Next year we are projecting a $600 million hole in the state budget, and that is before McCleary.
Those things together look insurmountable, and frightening. We’re working up against a clock on an issue I wish did not have a clock.
My commitment is that I will be on the hill in Olympia every single day they are in session, on the ground working with the Legislature, making sure we are getting funding for Blanchard Mountain. Our communities and departments have worked too hard to come to a solution, and this is too much of a precious resource that will be lost. Once it is logged, we’ll have to wait another 150 years to get it back again. I will work with our partners to make sure it happens.
CW: Another issue of concern is our state aquatic lands and their potential lease to fossil fuel export projects. You’ve been pretty open that you do not support the lease of public tidelands for the export of coal.
HF: I knew you were going to ask about coal!
I am the candidate who has made climate change, climate change, climate change a key pillar of why I am running. I believe that the Commissioner of Public Lands needs to be a visionary on this topic.
There’s two parts to this—first, making sure that we are not adding more greenhouse gas emissions to our atmosphere. The second is making sure we are planning to adapt to climate change.
Our landscapes offer a huge opportunity to ensure our state actually has food and water sources. We need to be looking at how management of our resources to determine how to be more resilient.
To the specific issue of coal, I am a big believer that we need to be planning for the future, setting up our economy for the future. Coal is not the future. Coal is outdated. It is an energy source of the past, and we need to—as fast as we can—be moving to a clean energy source.
We can actually leverage our public lands for that, whether it is wind, solar, or other sources of energy. We certainly should not be aggravating our problem supporting or enabling the export of coal to other communities even as we transition away from it.
I carry the map of DNR lands with me everywhere I go. I get excited looking at the map and realizing that we have a governor, we have a Legislature that are trying to build a clean energy future. Our natural resources and public lands can play a role in that. When you look at the map of lands, we can see a huge opportunity to be leasing some of our lands to renewable energy sources.
That achieves a couple of things. One, it reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. Two, it starts to create clean energy jobs. Three, it helps achieve energy independence for ourselves and our state. Four, it generates revenue—back to this concept of generating value for beneficiaries. We could be taking public land that might be generating zero dollars per acre and move it to $1,200 to $1,400 an acre with wind and renewables. Those are all positive outcomes, and DNR does not have to go through the Legislature to get some of that done.
We can make smart decisions about our leases.
One of my top goals is to do an asset management analysis of all of our lands, and which are best suited for certain functions. I think we can become a model for the nation.
CW: DNR recently denied the shoreline permit for the Gateway Pacific Terminal. The pier for that proposed project was inside a cutout of the Cherry Point Aquatic Reserve. Lummi Nation has petitioned DNR to place that entire area under protected status as an aquatic reserve. Will you support their petition?
HF: First of all, my opponent has suggested that he would reopen that issue. My position is, no, that permit is closed. The decision has been made, and I support the decision.
I’m a big supporter of the state’s aquatic reserves. When I look at this issue, I recognize that the request must meet certain criteria of critical protection of habitat for fish and wildlife.
I have not looked specifically at that area to see if it meets those requirements. But as Commissioner of Public Lands, I would look at that criteria. I would be very open to exploring that request.
CW: Zooming out to Western Washington, what role will DNR play in land management?
HF: Bellingham and Whatcom County holds some of our most precious working farmlands, some of our most precious working forest lands. At the same time, you are seen as this huge recreation area. And you have aquaculture—look, you have it all! You also have this in the context of one of the fastest-growing populations in the state.
I think there’s a huge opportunity for DNR and its public lands to be a buffer against the conversion of resource lands to sprawl. How do we grow your recreation economy?
One thing I’ve planned is to have a representative in the natural resource economy or economic development arena placed in each region around the state, so that they can work directly with the community to figure out what is the infrastructure investment required to keep supporting and growing our natural resource economy, to protect our working farms and forest lands so they’re not subject to conversion.
What’s holding these lands back from being utilized, from being managed in a healthy way, and what investment has to happen to make it possible?
This is an exciting and challenging time for public lands in Washington.
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