Fires are top priority for Commissioner of Public Lands hopefuls

Three of the seven candidates for state Commissioner of Public Lands cited wildfires as their top priority for leading the Department of Natural Resources.

The three candidates, Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler and Democrats Patrick DePoe and Kevin Van De Wege, all said during a July 9 Port Angeles Business Association meeting that they wanted to see increased harvests on public lands to support local communities and help prevent wildfires.

“Fifty-three percent of Washington’s forest will never be harvested again,” Van De Wege said. “That is a huge win if you’re an environmentalist, but the 47 percent that we have left, we need to continually manage and manage well.”

Van De Wege has been the state senator for the 24th Legislative District, covering most of the Olympic Peninsula since 2017, and a firefighter for 25 years. He said his firefighting career combined with his seat on the Senate Agriculture, Water, Natural Resources & Parks Committee makes him uniquely positioned to lead DNR.

“Any good firefighter will tell you the best way to put out fires is to not let it get started in the first place,” Van De Wege said.

“On the forest front, that’s making sure we have a reduction in fuel, and that is achieved by that sustainable harvest.”

A former Makah Tribal Council member and current DNR employee, DePoe said he’s spent his entire life in communities that depend on natural resources for their survival.

“I understand what the impact, especially with this lockup (of public lands), is doing to our communities,” DePoe said. “It’s been too long that people have been in these positions that don’t live the life that we live.”

The state already has several environmental processes and regulations that need to be followed, DePoe said, stating multiple times during the forum that he was a big fan of process. He said that, as a tribal member, he’s able to bridge the gap between environmentalism and the resource industry.

“When I talk about prescribed burns, for me it’s a little bit different because we call them cultural burns,” DePoe said. “This isn’t new to us. This is something that I am able to convey to a progressive legislation. I am able to educate folks that have this air quality complaint that this is tribal ecological knowledge. I’m able to bridge that gap there and tell people this is why this is needed.”

Herrera Beutler, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington from 2011-2023, blamed the state’s increase of wildfires on mismanagement of forest land, directed, she said, by environmental special interest groups.

“Too many of our forests are under-managed or outright neglected and turned into crowded, diseased tinderboxes just waiting for a spark,” Herrera Beutler said.

“It’s because, in my view, our state has been controlled by the extreme left for too long. We need a leader who is willing to stand up to radical environmentalists who have for decades put pressure on our state leadership to lock up our lands.”

Proper forest management can be both environmentally and economically beneficial, said Herrera Beutler, who added that putting forests into conservation status is not the best way to protect them.

“It is a false choice to say we lock it up and that’s how we protect things,” Herrera Beutler said. “I want to see a renaissance of our resources, and we have to beat back the lie that says we have to set it aside to protect it.”

Despite their partisan differences, candidates were in agreement about many of the issues discussed at the forum. Asked about the city of Port Angeles’ request to stop the 126-acre Power Plant sale near the Elwha River, all candidates said they didn’t support the move.

But the three candidates in Port Angeles on July 9 are only a portion of those running for Commissioner of Public Lands. In total, there are five Democrats and two Republicans, Herrera Beutler included, running in the open primary Aug. 6, when the top two vote-getters will move on to the general election.

Also running for Commissioner of Public Lands are former wildland firefighter and DNR employee Allen Lebovitz, a Democrat; King County Council member and former state Rep. Dave Upthegrove, a Democrat; former Grays Harbor Public Utility District Power Manager and runner-up in the 2020 Commissioner of Public Lands race, Sue Keuhl Pederson, a Republican; and Redmond City Council member and non-profit executive Jeralee Anderson, a Democrat.

The current Commissioner of Public Lands, Hillary Franz, did not seek re-election to the position. Instead, she is running for Washington’s 6th Congressional District, a seat currently held by Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor.

Of the three statewide candidates who appeared at the Port Angeles forum, two are from Clallam County; DePoe lives in Neah Bay and Van De Wege in the Lake Sutherland area.

According to the state Public Disclosure Commission, Upthegrove has raised the most money with nearly $481,000 in total donations. Herrera Beutler has raised the next most funds with $396,000, followed by Van De Wege with $304,000. DePoe has raised $166,000, according to the PDC.

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