Neither of the candidates running to be Washington’s next commissioner of public lands want to come across as extreme.
Hilary Franz, a Democrat and former executive director of the Seattle-based land-use advocacy group Futurewise, mentions that she owns a small farm in Pierce County, and when asked about claims that she wants to “lock up” forests from logging and other uses, she lets out an emphatic “Nooooooo.”
Steve McLaughlin, a Republican and retired Navy commander, highlights how he helped preserve an old-growth forest near Arlington, Washington, and how he’s been a member of REI, a co-op retailer known for selling clothing and gear to outdoorsy types, since before Franz was born.
“It is my sense that we’ve taken too much of [DNR land] out of production, and that some of it can be brought into production without any effect on endangered species or water quality,” says McLaughlin.
Commissioner of Public Lands is an often-overlooked position that’s responsible for overseeing the Department of Natural Resources, an agency that manages 5.6 million acres of state land, in addition to Washington’s largest firefighting operation.
The next commissioner will have to balance the competing demands of preserving public lands while also using them to produce money for schools and county services. The election comes at a time when memories of catastrophic forest fires remain fresh, timber harvests have sagged and tensions over the scope of public lands have heightened nationally.
McLaughlin supporters worry that Franz has been too involved in land-use lawsuits and is too close to litigious environmental groups. Franz supporters say McLaughlin is too close to the timber industry and has ties with militant groups.
“His courting of radical groups brings up serious questions if McLaughlin even believes in the department he is running for,” says Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters. Murphy says her organization has endorsed Franz as a candidate who will protect public lands while also promoting prosperity.