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More Democrats lining up to be Washington’s next public lands commissioner

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More Democrats lining up to be Washington’s next public lands commissioner

Sep 13, 2023 | 12:21 pm ET
By Jerry Cornfield
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More Democrats lining up to be Washington’s next public lands commissioner
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Washington state Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, who is running for state public lands commissioner in 2024. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Saldana)

The job of managing Washington’s public lands and forests is opening up next year and the number of Democrats who want it is growing.

Democratic state Sen. Rebecca Saldana of Seattle announced her candidacy for commissioner of public lands on Wednesday and said in an interview she wants to ensure the benefits of state policies on climate and healthy forests are shared equally among residents in every community across the state.

“I am seeing the people that I am trying to do policy for not being able to enjoy this beautiful place,” said Saldana, author of a state law requiring Washington agencies to address the disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. “I want to make sure those who have not been invited to the table in the past get a seat in the future.”

Meanwhile, Patrick DePoe, a member of the Makah Tribe and director of tribal relations for the Department of Natural Resources, kicked off his campaign last week. The Neah Bay Democrat enters with the endorsement of Hilary Franz, the current commissioner and his boss, who is running for governor.

“I’ve spent my life living off the land. I’ve spent my life caring for the land. This is where my heart is at,” DePoe said. “I’m the only candidate that doesn’t need on-the-job training.”

Saldana and DePoe join two fellow Democrats in this race: state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Port Angeles and former state senator Mona Das of Kent. Sue Kuehl Pederson, who lost to Franz in 2020, is the lone Republican candidate so far.

And King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove, who ran unsuccessfully for the job in 2016, may soon be ready to say if he is getting in. He created a campaign committee in May but is not raising money as he mulls a decision.

In a Sunday email, he promised supporters a “political announcement” in the next few weeks, adding that serving as commissioner “would be the culmination of a life and career focused on environmental and natural resources issues—not a stepping stone to higher office.”

Who will environmentalists back?

As head of the Department of Natural Resources, the lands commissioner is responsible for the caretaking of Washington’s 5.6 million acres of state land and the revenue it generates. The job pays an annual salary of $161,905.

The position also plays an increasingly critical role in the state’s response to climate change, including with the rise in the number and severity of wildfires. The Department of Natural Resources is the state’s lead wildfire-fighting agency and there’s growing attention on what role the state’s forests might play in capturing and storing carbon dioxide.

That brings added pressure on the commissioner, who in developing policies on forest health and land management must consider the often conflicting demands of environmentalists and timber interests.

In this race, Van De Wege has emerged as the choice of moderate Democrats, like himself, and lumber companies. He’s unlikely to win over environmental groups for voting against one of their major initiatives, the Climate Commitment Act.

Statewide organizations like Washington Conservation Action haven’t endorsed. Their respective leaders know their backing is important. Without it, some candidates might even withdraw before next year’s primary. Hence, some groups may not wait until next year to decide who they want to succeed Franz.

“We’re looking at the field right now and we’re hoping to make an expedited decision,” said Peter Goldman, the group’s treasurer and founder of the Washington Forest Law Center. “Our sole goal is to put someone in there who is visionary and will shake things up and bring a more climate-friendly forestry approach on state lands.”

A progressive agenda

Saldana, 46, was appointed to the state Senate in 2016, won election in 2018 and was re-elected in 2022. She is the deputy majority leader and vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. She represents the 37th District which includes Beacon Hill, Central District, Rainier Valley, and Renton.

A graduate of Seattle University, she was a labor organizer for several years, including work with the United Farm Workers. Before joining the Senate, she served as executive director for Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit that promotes affordable housing, environmental justice and workers’ rights.

In 2021, Saldana authored the Healthy Environment for All Act, also known as the HEAL Act. It requires several state agencies, including the departments of Ecology, Agriculture, Commerce, and Natural Resources, to identify and address environmental health disparities in disadvantaged communities. It was the first such law in the nation.

“I am the one person that has been pushing progressive policies in the Legislature and the state and effectively getting them passed,” she said.

She said her experience building coalitions will guide her as she presses “to be bolder and push forward” on policies for healthy forests and land management.

A way of life

DePoe, 41, a former commercial fisherman, said he served as an elected member of the Makah Tribal Council from 2017 to January 2023. In that role, he helped manage tribal lands along with agencies and services. He joined Franz’s executive team at the Department of Natural Resources in March.

Born and raised on the Makah Reservation, he is seeking to become the first Native American elected to statewide office.

More Democrats lining up to be Washington’s next public lands commissioner
Patrick DePoe, director of tribal relations for Washington Department of Natural Resources and 2024 candidate for Commissioner of Public Lands (Photo courtesy of Depoe campaign)

He said he wants to enhance some of what is already going on in the areas of improving forest health, reducing wildfire risks and supporting local fire districts and first responders. 

And DePoe said one of his priorities is to plant more trees in urban and suburban areas, especially where there haven’t been any in the past. Increasing coverage of tree canopies will eliminate heat islands and generally lower temperatures, he said.

“Growing up I was taught the importance of natural resources and their connection to people,” he said. “Sustainability for me is more than a slogan, it’s a way of life. As the climate warms and the dangers of wildfires grow, we need thoughtful forest management with a balanced approach and the sort of consensus building and tough choices I’ve made throughout my career.”

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Washington Conservation Voters is a coalition of 21 groups, which it is not.