New Washington State lands commissioner promises balance in meeting operation goals

Washington's new Commissioner of Public Lands
Hilary Franz is sworn in as Washington State’s Commissioner of Public Lands Jan. 11. — Photo provided by the Department of Natural Resources

OLYMPIA, Jan. 26 -- Hilary Franz became the state’s new commissioner of Public Lands last month after earning that title in the November election.

The management of much of the state’s natural resources rests with her department.

Washington is one of only four states that elect public lands commissioners. The others are Arkansas, New Mexico and South Dakota. In many states, this position is called director of Natural Resources. Wyoming is the only state without this position.

In an interview during her first weeks on the job, Franz said, “This is one of the least known positions in Washington State, but I believe it’s one of the most important due to the amount of land we manage and regulate.”

As commissioner, Franz administers the state Department of Natural Resources and its 1,500 employees, directs the management of 5.6 million acres of state-owned lands, directs resource protection on millions of acres of state and private forest lands and chairs the state’s Board of Natural Resources and the Forest Practices Board.

The natural resources board has final approval authority on state trust-land timber sales, and on sales, exchanges or purchases of trust lands. It also establishes the sustainable harvest level for forested trust lands.

The Forest Practices Board sets standards for practices on state and private timberlands, including timber harvests, pre-commercial thinning, road construction and forest chemical applications.

The decisions of the commissioner heavily affect rural communities and the environment in and around those communities. Franz is aware of this duality.

“I will focus on improving the health of our environment and how that pertains to our public, agricultural, forest, aquatic lands,” Franz said. “Equally important is strengthening rural economic health. Many communities near DNR lands have economies dependent on our natural resources.”

The 5.6 million acres of DNR-managed state-owned land includes forestlands, agricultural leased lands, commercial lands, and aquatic lands, such as navigable lakes and streams, as well as the underwater earth of the coast and Puget Sound. DNR and the Board of Natural Resources award leases and timber harvest rights on state-owned lands to generate revenue for an array of public benefits, such as K-12 school construction, universities, state Capitol buildings and certain forested counties.

Those looking for an answer to the McCleary decision in DNR land management should look elsewhere, Franz iterated. Trust land revenue, she noted, doesn’t go toward the operating budgets of schools, the budget the McCleary decision is concerned with. Instead, it goes to the capital budget for school construction.

Franz said DNR also regulates and provides wildfire protection on over 8 million acres of private and state-owned land.

One of the greatest challenges and duties facing the DNR, according to Franz, is preventing and fighting forest fires. The new commissioner said 2.7 million acres of private and state-owned forestlands are in poor health, which makes that land even more susceptible to burning. Her department has the largest on-call fire department in the state, with 1,300 people trained to respond to wildfires.

Franz, who ran as a Democrat in the November election against Steve McLaughlin, received strong support from environmentalists. She is the former executive director of Futurewise, a nonprofit that supports the state’s Growth Management Act, adopted by the Legislature in 1990. The organization had an important role in Whatcom County v. Hirst suit, where the court found that it is the job of counties, not the Department of Ecology, to determine water availability. That suit was filed when she was executive director at Futurewise.

The department she now leads has little responsibility for overseeing water resources, she says.

Franz won 53 percent of the vote in the November election while losing in all eastern Washington counties, in some cases getting less than half the votes of McLaughlin there.

The new commissioner has ideas about how to diversify land use, such as encouraging DNR land be leased for wind and solar power. She opposes land use for fossil-fuel projects.

Franz has personal ties to farming. She is a third-generation cattle farmer and owns land in Pierce County. In a recent state Senate Natural Resources and Parks committee meeting, she noted that her family owned “some of the last Ponderosa pine west of the Cascades.”

(This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Reach reporter Matt Spaw at matthewspaw@gmail.com)

Link to Department of Natural Resources’ forest practices rules:

http://www.dnr.wa.gov/about/boards-and-councils/forest-practices-board/rules-and-guidelines/forest-practices-rules

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