N either of the candidates running to be Washington's next commissioner of public lands want to come across as extreme.
Hilary Franz, a Democrat and former executive director of the Seattle-based land-use advocacy group Futurewise, mentions that she owns a small farm in Pierce County, and when asked about claims that she wants to "lock up" forests from logging and other uses, she lets out an emphatic "Nooooooo."
Steve McLaughlin, a Republican and retired Navy commander, highlights how he helped preserve an old-growth forest near Arlington, Washington, and how he's been a member of REI, a co-op retailer known for selling clothing and gear to outdoorsy types, since before Franz was born.
"It is my sense that we've taken too much of [DNR land] out of production, and that some of it can be brought into production without any effect on endangered species or water quality," says McLaughlin.
Commissioner of Public Lands is an often-overlooked position that's responsible for overseeing the Department of Natural Resources, an agency that manages 5.6 million acres of state land, in addition to Washington's largest firefighting operation.
The next commissioner will have to balance the competing demands of preserving public lands while also using them to produce money for schools and county services. The election comes at a time when memories of catastrophic forest fires remain fresh, timber harvests have sagged and tensions over the scope of public lands have heightened nationally.
McLaughlin supporters worry that Franz has been too involved in land-use lawsuits and is too close to litigious environmental groups. Franz supporters say McLaughlin is too close to the timber industry and has ties with militant groups.
"His courting of radical groups brings up serious questions if McLaughlin even believes in the department he is running for," says Shannon Murphy, president of Washington Conservation Voters. Murphy says her organization has endorsed Franz as a candidate who will protect public lands while also promoting prosperity.
This is the first time there's been an open race for the position since 2000. While McLaughlin has raised $78,000 to Franz's $286,000, an Elway Poll released in August found the candidates statistically tied, Franz holding a 33 to 32 percent lead.
THE McLAUGHLIN GROUP
McLaughlin says he was in northeast Washington last week, meeting with farmers and ranchers who lease land from DNR and complained that the agency had increased rates while refusing to negotiate.
"That creates, in my mind, an adversarial relationship," says McLaughlin, a 60-year-old resident of Seabeck, a former mill town in Kitsap County.
A central issue for McLaughlin's campaign is restoring goodwill between government agencies and rural communities who use public lands for grazing and logging. His sympathy for individuals and communities who have chafed under state and federal regulations led him into one of the most heated incidents concerning public lands in recent memory.
In 2015, McLaughlin says he was approached by a group called the Coalition of Western States, a group of elected officials and other like-minded leaders who've been critical of federal land management agencies. At the time, COWS had drafted a letter in support of Dwight Hammond, Jr., an eastern Oregon rancher, and his son, Steven, who had been sentenced to federal prison for committing arson on public lands.
The Hammonds, who had an acrimonious relationship with federal agencies, argued that the two fires they set were controlled burns intended to protect their ranch. After serving time for their conviction, an appeals court ruled that the sentence was too lenient, according to the anti-terrorism law they were convicted under, and sentenced Dwight Hammond, Jr., then 73, to five more years in federal prison and Steven, then 46, to four.
"I believe they did get an excessive sentence and I did sign on to that letter," says McLaughlin, pointing out that U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican who represents Oregon's rural 2nd District, has also said the family was treated unfairly.
In January, following a protest in support of the Hammonds in Burns, Oregon, a group of armed protestors went to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and occupied it, causing a standoff that didn't end until February.
During the occupation, a group of Republican lawmakers associated with COWS, led by Matt Shea, a state representative from Spokane Valley, made a "fact-finding" trip to the refuge, meeting with occupiers and local officials. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a national hate group monitor, has tied members of COWS, including McLaughlin, to far-right, anti-government extremist movements.
"A person like Steve McLaughlin, with such close ties to the occupation of public land, is not fit to hold statewide office," says Murphy. "It raises serious questions about what he truly believes."
McLaughlin says he's not a member of COWS and that the occupiers should face trial.
"I believe in the rule of law and I believe in the rights of protesters," he says. "But when they took over that wildlife refuge, that's where my involvement ended."
In June, McLaughlin appeared on a podcast hosted by Shea, who called him a "very good friend" and "one of the most qualified candidates" for the position. The same month, McLaughlin appeared on a podcast hosted by John Jacob Schmidt, who is associated with the American Redoubt, a controversial movement that calls for conservative Christians and Jews to move to parts of the intermountain West to prepare for societal collapse.
"I know where your head and your heart are at, and I was excited to hear that you were actually going to be running for this position," Schmidt told McLaughlin.
During both shows, McLaughlin reiterated his desire for a more conciliatory approach from land management agencies and increased logging to prevent fires. When asked by Shea, McLaughlin said he understood the frustrations behind the Malheur occupation, but stopped short of embracing it.
Legislators associated with COWS have unsuccessfully sponsored bills to transfer federal lands to state governments, an idea recently embraced by the national Republican Party. When asked on Shea's podcast about the matter, McLaughlin responded that a transfer would have to be done in a slow, measured way.
But the idea of transferring federal lands to states is unsettling to many environmental groups, among others. Murphy says that state governments are largely unequipped to manage federal lands and would find themselves outmaneuvered by timber companies if a transfer were to happen. Cash-strapped state governments, she says, could end up selling the lands to private owners.
McLaughlin tells the Inlander it's unlikely that any lands will be transferred to the state. If they are, he says, "Not a square centimeter of public land should be sold off."
He shrugs off criticism that he's too close to controversial individuals and groups.
"My job is to get every vote I can get," he says. "I have no problem talking to anyone."
It certainly isn't a problem for the groups that have endorsed him, which include the Association of Washington Business, the Washington Farm Bureau and the Building Industry Association of Washington.
In 2009, 2.2 billion board feet of timber was harvested in Washington from public and private lands, the lowest on record, according to DNR numbers. In 2015, the amount increased to 2.8 billion board feet. The same year, DNR generated $313 million in revenue from timber sales and leases, money that was directed to public schools, universities and county services. With the state facing a gap in education funding, both candidates are open to increased logging.
"When we lock up our forests, we have left them to not be healthy forests," says Franz, a 46-year-old resident of Bainbridge Island.
Franz, who's been endorsed by both the Washington State Council of Fire Fighters and the Washington Education Association, says she's for "active management" of forests, using data to determine how much logging is fiscally and environmentally sustainable.
Like McLaughlin, she's concerned that dry timber will build up in forests if they aren't thinned, making them more susceptible to a repeat of last year's catastrophic fires. Franz says that a barrier to more harvesting is a lack of infrastructure in some areas. She also wants to look into placing solar panels and wind turbines on state lands to generate revenue.
But business and labor groups have endorsed McLaughlin, citing his management experience and remarks from Franz that she wants to decouple timber revenue from school funding. Franz insists she's not for decoupling, and instead wants to diversify sources of school funding.
"We think [Franz is] a very talented person, but there are concerns that she would lean too heavily to extreme environmental groups that want to lock out the lands," says Greg Pallesen, vice president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers.
Cindy Mitchell, senior director of public affairs for the Washington Forest Protection Association, a trade group for private landowners, says she personally supports McLaughlin. She points to campaign filings showing that Peter Goldman, the director of the Washington Forest Law Center who has litigated against DNR decisions, has given $106,000 to a committee that has contributed $197,000 in independent expenditures to Franz's campaign.
She also criticizes Franz, as executive director of Futurewise, for using litigation against local governments (including Spokane County) in land-use disputes, which she says reduces involvement from stakeholders and the public.
"They want to pin me as this person who is heavily litigious," replies Franz. She says that her campaign has received funding from a diverse range of sources encompassing businesses, recreation and conservation groups. She says that under her direction, Futurewise has engaged in less litigation and become more focused on education and advocacy, working with legislators from both parties.
And while Franz says she's heard "alarming things" things from her opponent, she still says that "every voter is critical, and their voice matters, and their opinion matters." ♦