Washington state race for lands chief focused on wildfires

Forest health, maintenance a key issue

By Associated Press

EVERETT — Combating wildfires and maintaining forest health has become a key issue in the race for commissioner of public lands in Washington state.

This year’s race pits incumbent Hilary Franz, a Democrat, against former fisheries biologist Sue Kuehl Pederson, a Republican. The winner on Nov. 3 will serve a four-year term.

Kuehl Pederson has said Franz has not acted quickly enough to prevent wildfires. She has also questioned Franz’s emphasis on climate change as a factor in causing this year’s longer wildfire season.

Franz was elected commissioner in 2016. She said she has spent her term working to reverse a forest health crisis.

Franz said roughly 2.7 million acres of forest in Washington state are dead or dying and provide the perfect conditions to prolong and enlarge already spreading wildfires. Over 1.25 million acres need to be thinned over the next 20 years to remove the unnecessary tinder, Franz said.

“When we have too dense of forest and too weak of trees, fire gets so hot that it burns even the healthy trees,” Franz said.

The commissioner leads the state Department of Natural Resources, the state’s largest on-call fire department, and is responsible for responding to wildfires on 13 million acres of private, state and tribal forest land.

Over 800,000 acres of land have burned from wildfires so far this year, according to the department.

The lands commissioner also oversees more than 5 million acres of forest, agricultural, aquatic and commercial land, the Daily Herald reported.

From 2005 to 2012, the state Department of Natural Resources cleared 30,000 acres of dying forest. Franz said she aims to remove at least 70,000 acres of forest each year. She won funding from lawmakers to expand resources for firefighting, forest health and fire prevention, the Herald reported.

Franz said she will continue to push for more wildfire-prevention funding if she is re-elected despite a projected $4 billion shortfall in the state budget due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Kuehl Pederson said Franz has already had her time in office to implement those changes, to no avail.

“My opponent has had four years,” Kuehl Pederson said. “She keeps touting the 10-year, 20-year plans, but you know, we just can’t stick with that schedule.”

Kuehl Pederson said that as commissioner, rather than request federal funding for forest health, clean-up efforts or other fire-preventing methods, she would give more latitude to homeowners and local ranchers to aid in firefighting.

“I want to see the private sector involved in protecting their own lands,” she said.

Franz, 50, served on the Bainbridge Island City Council, Puget Sound Transportation Futures Task Force and other panels before becoming commissioner. She was also the executive director of Futurewise, an environmental advocacy group.

Kuehl Pederson, 66, has been employed as a fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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