For a state department with an annual budget of more than $370 million, the Department of Natural Resources is surprisingly anonymous. In coordinating Washington’s defense against wildfires, the agency receives attention during hot, smoky summers, yet otherwise is easily overlooked.
But as Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz explained to The Columbian’s Editorial Board last week, the department can not only protect Washington’s assets but can turn them into revenue generators.
“For so long, the environment and the economy have been butting heads,” said Franz, who is in her first four-year term and says she will seek re-election next year. With a legislative mandate for the state to move toward clean energy and with increased attention on the economic potential of sustainable energy, the Department of Natural Resources should play a role in a prosperous Washington.
To some extent, that long has been the case. The department manages 3 million acres of public lands and supports schools and local governments through timber sales and natural resource leases. As the DNR’s website explains: “The U.S. Congress granted Washington millions of acres of land to support public institutions such as funding the construction of public K-12 grade schools statewide, state universities, other state educational institutions, and prisons.”
Franz said the department generates about $325 million a year — roughly $125 million for schools and $200 million for counties. Much of that revenue supports often-struggling rural areas.
The department also is pursuing additional opportunities. It has approved 21 leases for wind farms on state-owned land along with two new leases for solar energy production. The land previously generated little revenue for taxpayers and, as Franz noted, one solar lease represents “a 98,000 percent increase in revenue.”
In another example, she mentioned West Richland in Benton County as a case of leveraging public investment on public lands to boost the local economy. There, 1,000 acres of grapes have contributed to Washington’s thriving wine industry. “I always tell people, ‘Drink more wine, help the schools,’ “ Franz said.
In the process, Washington steps into an ongoing discussion about the need for and the benefits from publicly owned land. Discussions for and against privatization represent one of the most heated arguments in the current political landscape, and Trump administration policies have worked in favor of privatization or extraction industries on public lands.
For most Washingtonians, we believe, such policy is anathema. The Northwest long has had an affinity for preserving the resources and the beauty of our vast landscapes, opting for wise management rather than degradation.
That process is imperfect. Poor forest management has contributed — along with climate change — to increasingly intense wildfires. Wise management should not mean no management.
All of that presents a conundrum for those tasked with stewardship of land owned by all of us. For the Department of Natural Resources, that includes forest lands, natural areas and aquatic reserves. Each of those present economic opportunities that can make use of the land without resulting in irreversible damage.
That will become particularly important as Washington embraces alternative energy sources and as state officials strive to make public lands work for the public. As Franz explains by saying “I have a fiduciary responsibility,” there is no reason that environmental and economic concerns have to butt heads.