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 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 (10,927 square kilometers) of forest in Washington are dead or dying and provide the perfect conditions to prolong and enlarge already spreading wildfires. Over 1.25 million acres (5,059 square kilometers) 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 (52,609 square kilometers) of private, state and tribal forest land.
Over 800,000 acres of land (3,237 square kilometers) have burned from wildfires so far this year, according to the department.
The lands commissioner also oversees more than 5 million acres (20,234 square kilometers) 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 (121 square kilometers) of dying forest. Franz said she aims to remove at least 70,000 acres (283 square kilometers) 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 pandemic.
Keuhl 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 and by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state Department of Fish and Wildlife.