RAYMOND — At a June 8 forum, Washington’s new Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz said she was ready to listen.
“This isn’t a place where you have to hold back,” the energetic, funny attorney told her audience of about 40. “This a place to be candid about what’s worked in the past, not worked in the past.”
Franz heads the state Department of Natural Resources, which manages almost 6 million acres of public lands and acts as the state’s biggest firefighting agency.
Because DNR manages large swaths of the region’s timberland, as well as more than 25,000 acres in the Willapa Bay, local leaders, activists, farmers, business people and concerned citizens had plenty to say to Franz. At the early-morning meeting at the Grays Harbor College campus in Raymond, speakers urged DNR to take decisive action on local issues like the proliferation of ghost shrimp in the bay, timber pricing, and leasing agreements for DNR-managed portions of the bay. They also advocated for more streamlined permitting and regulatory processes, more local control of land-management decisions, and less influence from urban conservation groups.
New leader, new priorities
Franz visited Raymond during a breakneck tour of five rural Washington communities last week. The tour promoted the “Rural Communities Partnership Initiative,” a new effort to increase cooperation between DNR and rural community leaders on economic development projects. According to a press release, the initiative will focus on the so-called “timber counties” and other parts of the state that have natural resource-based economies.
A graduate of Northeastern University School of Law, Franz has been in office since January. She replaces fellow Democrat Peter Goldmark, who chose not to run for reelection. Before coming to office, Franz served a term on the Bainbridge Island City Council, and led Futurewise, a statewide conservation group.
Franz said her top priorities include forest health, better management of wildfires and rural economic development. She hinted at the significant philosophical and leadership differences between her and Goldmark, whom environmental groups sometimes criticized, especially for being too friendly to timber interests.
“I have 10 big problems,” Franz said. “I had to winnow it down from 50 big problems”
Seeing the forest — and the trees
In rural Washington, Franz’s most immediate “big problem” might be winning the confidence of the people with whom she hopes to collaborate. Her role as the head of a sometimes controversial, mostly Seattle-based environmental group makes a lot of people outside the I-5 corridor nervous. She acknowledged that in communities like Prosser, where residents are still recovering from the disastrous 2015 fire season, the DNR has a lot of broken relationships to mend.
A fair number of leaders in timber-country are also skeptical of Franz.
“The environmental community basically has a line drawn in the sand, and they won’t cross that,” Sen. Dean Takko, D-Longview, told Franz. “It gets so darn frustrating.”
Franz laughed gamely at Takko’s ribbing, and told him that during her time at Futurewise, she too had become frustrated with the group’s reluctance to move “toward a more nuanced position” on certain issues. She emphasized her upbringing as a farmer’s daughter, and said she was committed to using a “constructive and supportive” approach to finding a fair balance between stewarding the state’s natural resources and profiting from them.
Problems in the bay
Oyster growers Kathleen Nisbet and Marilyn Sheldon implored Franz to take a stand against the spartina grass and the constantly multiplying burrowing shrimp that are taking over the Willapa Bay at the expense of oysters and other animal and plant species.
“This is the closest our industry has ever been to collapse,” Sheldon said. “We need state agencies to get involved. We have been at the table by ourselves trying to solve this problem. We can’t do it alone any more.”
Nisbet said local growers often feel like they’re trying to solve an overwhelming problem without assistance from one of the largest land-holders in the bay.
“DNR has some of the largest acreage in the bay, total, and they don’t do anything to manage the land,” she said.
Franz said she thought any solution to the problems in the bay would have to begin with better cooperation between DNR and the Department of Ecology.
On a wing and a prayer
Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers said commissioners are concerned about potential changes to conservation plans for endangered species — especially the marbled murrelet, a primarily ocean-going bird that loves to make long layovers in Pacific and Wahkiakum timber tracts.
“Anything more restrictive would cause an economic hit to the county,” Ayers said.
Wahkiakum County Commissioner Dan Cothren said the agency needed to work more closely with local leaders to improve forest management and timber harvest and sales. He invited Franz to tour Wahkiakum.
Franz was empathetic, saying she thought the state was years overdue on taking “a full accounting” of the opportunities and jobs that rural communities have lost as a result conservation policies.
“I truly believe that for too long, we’ve really left our rural communities behind,” Franz said.
However, she said meaningful long-term solutions will take time and require unprecedented compromise between deeply entrenched industry and advocacy groups, and better collaboration between local and state government.
Pacific County Economic Development Council Director Jim Sayce said state agencies tend to interact with rural communities primarily through permitting and enforcement processes.
“We tend to get trapped in the regulatory side, and we don’t focus on innovation,” Sayce said. What places like Pacific County really need from government, Sayce said, is investment in technology that could solve persistent problems, and connect rural workers with job opportunities.
No ‘biting at the margins’
Franz spoke about a recent meeting with a research and development team that is using unique applications of technology to make time and labor-intensive tasks, like studying Northwest wolf populations, more manageable.
“I can’t say I have an answer. I can say I have hope,” Franz said.
Again, Franz emphasized that DNR alone can’t solve local problems like the burrowing shrimp takeover, the proliferation of derelict boats on locals waters and shrinking timber quotas. But she ultimately promised to do more than just listen.
“You know what the nameplate in my office says? It says ‘Do epic s---’,” Franz said, earning a laugh from her audience. “We’re not here to bite way at the margins.”