SEATTLE — Washington’s next public lands commissioner will be expected to preserve forests, water and habitat in the face of more intense wildfires and a changing climate, while also ensuring revenues from logging, land leases and other operations for school construction and other projects.
Democrat Hilary Franz, an environmental attorney, and Republican Steve McLaughlin, a retired Navy commander, are running next month to lead Washington’s largest firefighting force and manage 5.6 million acres of state-owned lands.
McLaughlin, 60, who served in the Navy for 25 years, said he supports increasing timber harvests and opening more state lands to recreational opportunities, such as horseback riding, hunting and off-road vehicles. The job’s primary duty is to distribute state trust money for school construction and other projects, he said.
“I believe that healthy working forests are the key to funding our schools, and timber is the key to funding our schools,” said McLaughlin, who is married and lives in Seabeck. “We’re harvesting way below what we can be without damaging anything. I want to see those harvest levels increase because it increases revenues, it creates jobs, it reduces fire hazards and it improves water quality.”
Franz, 46, who is executive director of the statewide advocacy group Futurewise, said timber harvests are part of the solution. But she also believes the department should look at other ways to maximize revenue from state lands, such as leasing it for wind or solar power or other economic development.
“I believe that we have a responsibility to fund our schools. I believe public lands are critical to making sure that happens,” said Franz, who is married and lives in Seattle. “I’m committed to making sure that we are leveraging our public lands in a way that provides a stronger funding source for our schools and that diversifies our funding source.”
Franz said she would put an expert in economic development and natural resources in each regional office to identify investments needed in those communities.
The lands commissioner heads the Department of Natural Resources, which was created in 1957 to manage 3 million acres of state lands for trust beneficiaries, including K-12 school construction, state buildings and counties. The agency has 1,200 permanent employees and brought in $313 million in revenues during the 2015 fiscal year.
Franz and McLaughlin both support more prescribed burning, selective thinning of forests and other proactive efforts to prevent the kind of catastrophic wildfires that devastated the state in 2014 and 2015.
Franz said her two decades working on natural resources issues makes her well-suited for the job. The former Bainbridge Island City Councilwoman and environmental attorney said she has worked collaboratively with diverse communities across much of the state, including on water rights in Kittitas County as well as with state legislators on the 2015 state transportation package.
McLaughlin touts his leadership skills while in the Navy. He has taught emergency management courses to first responders and said he initiated an effort to help preserve old growth forest in Puget Sound by naming it after a Navy forester. Following the Carlton Complex fire in 2014 that destroyed hundreds of homes, McLaughlin helped with disaster relief efforts.
“I believe government functions best when people are involved,” said McLaughlin, who is founding president of Liberty Watch of Washington, a group that says it holds officials accountable to the U.S. and state constitutions.
He signed a letter in support of two ranchers at the center of a dispute that set off the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this year. McLaughlin said he supported Dwight and Steve Hammond, who were convicted of setting fire to federal lands, but did not support the refuge takeover.
Franz has far outpaced her opponent in campaign fundraising, raising $269,000 to McLaughlin’s $78,000 as of Friday, records show.
McLaughlin’s top contribution of $2,500 comes from Okanogan County Republican Party; he also received $2,000 each from timber companies such as Weyerhaeuser and Green Diamond Resource. Franz’s top donation of $15,000 comes from the Washington State Democrats.
Separately, an independent committee called “Citizens for Our Forests, Our Future” has raised and spent about $171,000 in television and internet ads in support of Franz, records show.