Upthegrove Pledges 'Transformational Change' in Bid for Lands Commissioner

Dave Upthegrove, a former legislator and current King County Councilmember and candidate for Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, recently discussed his bid for the position, highlighting his priorities and outlining his vision for the future of the state's natural resources management.

Upthegrove Pledges 'Transformational Change' in Bid for Lands Commissioner

Dave Upthegrove, a former legislator and current King County Councilmember and candidate for Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands, recently discussed his bid for the position, highlighting his priorities and outlining his vision for the future of the state's natural resources management.

The Commissioner of Public Lands leads the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which is responsible for managing and protecting the health and productivity of 5.6 million acres of public lands and waters, while generating revenue for schools and public services. The Commissioner also oversees the state's largest on-call fire department, responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of state and private forest lands.

If elected, Upthegrove would focus on key initiatives, including addressing climate change, promoting environmental justice, balancing economic needs with conservation, and improving wildfire management. Jaime Herrera Beutler, Kevin Van De Wege, and Patrick DePoe are also running for the position.

Addressing climate change is a top priority for Upthegrove, who stressed the importance of the DNR's role in carbon sequestration. "Our Pacific Northwest forests are some of the greatest carbon sinks in the world," he said, expressing his intention to sign a mature forest policy on his first day in office to protect legacy forests.

The candidate addressed the challenges faced by rural communities dependent on timber revenue. "We can do this and still, as I said, nurture rural economies, create jobs, fund those public services," Upthegrove noted, proposing creative solutions like acquiring replacement timberlands and developing clean energy projects on DNR lands.

On the topic of environmental justice, Upthegrove emphasized the importance of changing how DNR engages with communities. "I want to fundamentally change the way that the Department of Natural Resources engages with communities," he said, outlining plans to hire more diverse staff, reform advisory boards, and conduct racial justice assessments on major agency actions.

Upthegrove expressed support for expanding forest health treatments to Western Washington and securing more funding for local partnerships to improve wildfire management. He also addressed the need to improve flood and landslide prevention efforts.

The candidate touted his experience managing 200 employees as Chair of the King County Council and his background in environmental policy. "I bring strong environmental and social justice values, and committing to make the kind of transformational change that's urgently needed at this agency," he said

Upthegrove emphasized the potential for clean energy development on public lands to create jobs and fund rural economic development, while stressing the importance of protecting tribal sacred spaces and critical habitats.

Addressing the use of incarcerated labor in firefighting, Upthegrove advocated for fair compensation and better pathways to post-release employment in the field. He also discussed his decision not to accept campaign donations from timber companies or executives, given the DNR's regulatory role over the industry.

When asked about the differences between himself and his opponents, Upthegrove pointed to his extensive experience in environmental policy and local government, as well as his strong endorsements from environmental groups. He also highlighted his ability to win over suburban voters, positioning himself as the strongest candidate to face potential general election opponent and Republican, Jaime Herrera Beutler.

The primary for Commissioner of Public Lands will end on August 6th, and the top two finishers will advance to the general election that ends on November 5th, 2024. People who wish to vote can register or update their registration online at https://VoteWA.gov.

About the Guest

Dave Upthegrove

Dave’s love of the outdoors developed at a young age. He spent his summers in high school and college working outdoors — teaching young people about conservation on Dabob Bay and leading week-long treks through the Cascade Mountains.

His interest in politics developed as an environmental activist on campus at the University of Colorado where he earned his degree in Environmental Conservation and Biology— later earning a graduate certificate in Energy Policy from the University of Idaho.

During his twelve years representing the diverse working-class suburbs of South King County in the State House of Representatives, he served as Chair of the House Select Committee on Puget Sound– helping create the Puget Sound Partnership to restore our State’s crown jewel. He later served as Chair of the House Environment Committee— working in every corner of the State to reduce carbon pollution, clean up toxics, and improve oil spill prevention.

In the legislature, Dave was a leader of the Blue-Green Alliance—a pro-labor, pro-environment coalition that rejected the false choice between jobs and the environment, and instead found common ground to promote sustainable economic opportunities.

For his work, he was honored as Legislator of the Year by the Washington Conservation Voters. Now, as Chair of the King County Council, he is working with his colleagues to preserve public lands and manage growth, parks, wastewater and transportation in environmentally sustainable ways in our state’s most populous county.

As Chair of the King County Flood Control District, Dave doubled funding for salmon recovery and led major reforms to better protect our region’s rivers.

It is no surprise that Dave has the sole endorsement of WA Conservation Action— the leading policy and political voice in Washington’s environmental community. Dave understands that in order to have good jobs and a strong economy, we need to keep Washington State a great place to live. This means managing our public forests, aquatic lands, and other natural resources in the public interest.

When elected, Dave will be the first out LGBT statewide executive office holder in the history of the State of Washington. He lives with his husband Chad, cat Dobby, and dog Benji in Des Moines, WA.

Podcast Transcript

[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.

Today, we're focusing on a critical position in Washington state that will be on our ballots this year - the Commissioner of Public Lands. This elected official leads the Department of Natural Resources, with over 2,500 employees across 11 divisions, managing a vast portfolio that impacts our state's environment, economy, and communities. The Commissioner oversees management of 5.6 million acres of public lands - from coastal waters and aquatic reserves, to working forests and farms, mining operations, commercial developments, and recreation areas. They're responsible for generating revenue from these lands to support local services, while also preserving habitats and addressing climate change. These lands currently generate over $200 million annually for schools and public services like libraries and hospitals. The Commissioner manages our state's largest on-call fire department, responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires on 13 million acres of state and private forest lands. This is increasingly critical as climate change intensifies wildfire seasons, affecting air quality and public safety across Washington. Ecological responsibilities include salmon habitat restoration, protection of endangered species, and enhancing carbon sequestration in our forests. They also manage the geoduck fishery and oversee the removal of derelict vessels from state waters. The Commissioner plays a key role in climate resilience, developing strategies to adapt state lands and their uses to changing environmental conditions and needs. They work closely with the tribal governments and sovereign nations - honoring treaty rights and fostering collaborative land management. For rural residents, the Commissioner's policies directly impact job opportunities in forestry, agriculture, and emerging clean energy sectors. Urban and suburban folks are affected, too - from the expansion of urban tree canopies that cool our cities to the preservation of recreation areas where we camp, hike, and connect with nature. This position affects everyone in our state from the air we breathe to the economic vitality of rural communities. It's vital for voters to understand the significance of this role as you make your choice for this position on your ballot in this August primary and November general election.

To discuss his vision for this important position, we're joined by Dave Upthegrove - a former legislator, current King County Councilmember, and candidate for Commissioner of Public Lands. We'll explore his approach to balancing economic needs with environmental protection, his plans for wildlife management, and how he aims to address pressing issues like climate change, environmental justice, and more.

Welcome, Dave! And to start off, what made you decide to run for Public Lands Commissioner?

[00:03:36] Dave Upthegrove: Well, first, I'm excited to be here, Crystal - my first time on the podcast. You know, our world is changing. We're experiencing the impacts of climate change all around us. We're seeing a rapid loss of biodiversity locally and around the globe. And I'm running for Lands Commissioner to improve the management of our public lands to meet these realities of today. And it's not, for me, a stepping stone to higher office - in fact, I'm running to take a pay cut. But it really is, for me, the culmination of a life and career spent on environment and natural resources. As I explained to my mother a few months back, it feels like coming home to what led me to public service in the first place.

[00:04:20] Crystal Fincher: So what are the biggest challenges facing the Department of Natural Resources, DNR, and how do you plan to face them?

[00:04:28] Dave Upthegrove: As we do our work, the next commissioner has a huge responsibility on their shoulder - it's a big and complicated job. And I think the biggest challenges we face are how to reorient an agency to make sure that we are truly operating in the public interest, and addressing these large looming environmental challenges facing us as a state and as a planet. And I think the climate crisis is the biggest threat because its consequences are so severe - the threats upon us now, it makes acting with urgency imperative. And DNR has a big role to play. Our Pacific Northwest forests are some of the greatest carbon sinks in the world. And just a couple of years ago, the State Supreme Court in a landmark ruling - it was called Conservation Northwest v. Franz - it's really given us the opportunity to make some changes to our forestry practices to store more carbon. It means we ought to set ambitious carbon storage sequestration goals as we do our next sustainable harvest calculation - that's a fancy word for kind of the long range plan. It means preserving our legacy forests - these older, structurally diverse, mature forests - they're maybe 3% of our forest lands, but have a big outsize impact on climate. It means instituting honest carbon accounting as part of the analysis when we're going to sell timber. And I think implementing these kinds of big changes are going to be one of the biggest challenges at the department, but I know they're possible. We've done similar things in King County. We've established a forest carbon program as part of our County Land Conservation Initiative. We've led successful efforts to stop destruction of these mature forests in King County, and we're doing our own carbon accounting. And so I think the State Department of Natural Resources really urgently needs to catch up with these efforts when it comes to climate and forestry.

The other area where I think is ripe for improvement, one of the biggest challenges, is around recognizing that connection between the environment and people. We don't do this work to protect our natural areas for the natural areas' sake - we do it because the impacts they have on people. And ensuring that we are implementing our environmental justice principles and values into all of the work at the agency - I think there's a culture there that needs to be modernized, that needs to be improved. It starts with hiring the most diverse staff in the history of the agency, in every sense of the word diverse. It means making sure that our - believe it or not, we have a hundred advisory committees and standing task forces just for the agency. We need to make sure that all that community input, those committees reflect the diversity of the state and we listen to them. It means trying to break down the barriers to women and minority-owned businesses contracting. It means changing how we do community engagement, particularly with marginalized communities. It means going beyond the requirements for environmental justice law to do more racial justice assessments. There's so much work that needs to be done - not just on the environmental side, but really on that environmental justice side - on the connection between that agency and the people we serve. I think that's going to be another challenge and priority to address as well.

[00:07:45] Crystal Fincher: Fighting wildfires is one of the most visible things that you'll be responsible for to most people in the state. Are we currently managing our forests and areas vulnerable to wildfire correctly? What will your approach be?

[00:08:01] Dave Upthegrove: Sure. Obviously, wildfire prevention and response needs to be a top priority - not only for public safety, but also for public health. Those of us on the West Side have all experienced the smoke from recent wildfires - and that creates health risks. And it does so disproportionately on marginalized communities. So obviously we need to do more to continually improve our prevention efforts. They are making good progress, but we need a greater emphasis on prescribed burns, non-commercial thinning - not just to manage wildfire prevention, but forest health. And there's been good work, the department has a Forest Health Plan - that's what the term people use - forest health is getting and managing forests in order to prevent wildfires and keep them healthy. And they've treated about half a million acres - that's what we call prescribed burns and thinning. So that's pretty good progress - half a million acres treated - but they've all been in Eastern Washington, all of them. And that makes sense, but with the increasing wildfires on the West Side, I would like to see us start moving that work west of the mountains as well. I also think we need to keep working to address the barriers to the local level training and support. A lot of this work is done with local partners, fire departments, counties - and the funding has been uneven and we need to secure from the Legislature an increase in dedicated funding and capacity for those local partnerships.

I also think we ought to pursue effectiveness monitoring to get better information on how these different forest health treatments actually impact wildfire behavior. If we're doing commercial thinning, is it really - do we know that that's making an impact? And a number of outside organizations have recommended we would benefit from some additional data in those areas. So I think they're on the right track - I think one of Commissioner Franz's legacy will be the work she's done with the Legislature to get funding to modernize and upgrade - not just prevention like we've been talking about, but the response capacity as well. And in this race, I haven't seen much difference between the candidates in our approach to wildfire prevention and response. At the end of the day also, the job of the commissioner is to listen to the fire professionals at the department and fight like hell to get them the resources to do their jobs. It's very much analogous to a mayor and a fire department within a city - there's a fire department within the Department of Natural Resources that provides response not only to the state lands, but wildland wildfires throughout the state. So I think we are on the right track. I think we need to, as I said, continue to get the targeted resources for those local partnerships, make sure what we're doing is working, and expand that forest health work into the West Side.

[00:10:44] Crystal Fincher: Beyond wildfires, there are other natural hazards that we face increasing risks from - particularly due to climate change - like landslides and floods. What will be your approach to addressing those risks?

[00:10:58] Dave Upthegrove: A healthy forest provide a lot of functions - they're not just revenue to our beneficiaries, but they provide public benefits like healthy forests help with wildfire prevention. They help with flood prevention. They help with mitigating landslides. And the Lidar mapping of the landslide-prone lands in the state has actually dramatically improved DNR's ability to detect these slide-prone areas, particularly in western Washington. And I think we need further analysis and use of existing data, we need to continue to refine more precise data to improve what is essentially the predictive ability of the geologists within DNR so that we can preclude and not move forward with timber harvests on these slide-prone slopes. And we've seen some examples - oh, it was some time ago when I was in the Legislature - called the Stillman Creek slide in 2007, it was a classic case of a timber harvest that was allowed to proceed on a slope that was prone to slide. And if the geologists are consulted prior to the harvest planning, I think these events can be prevented. And we also should use this accurate Lidar data to try to warn communities prior to landslides, like the Oso slide in 2014. Often the same factors - not always - that contribute to slides also can contribute to flood issues. As the department engages in timber harvest, we have to make sure that the environmental analysis is done so that we are not disproportionately impacting a watershed with flood issues. And it's not just flooding, it's the way it impacts how water runs in a watershed - I think that's a more common problem. The decisions you make around forestry impact the salmon in the stream. When you cut down more trees - even when you replant them - when you have younger trees, it means the water gets to the stream faster. So you get higher flows in the winter and lower flows in the summer. And in a lot of these river basins, it's those low flows - affect the temperature and they affect the salmon and the orca that feed on them, so there's very much a connection between our forestry decisions and water in a watershed and how it affects salmon and orca. So I want to make sure that when we do our environmental analysis, we're taking a comprehensive look - not just at DNR's actions, but all the actions in that watershed. That would be a change. I also want to aggressively move forward with what they call riparian restoration - that's replanting along rivers. And we're supposed to be doing that - and we have in our federal plans, plans to do that - but it doesn't generate money, so it often gets left behind. And I want to reprioritize riparian restoration. Those are steps that also can help with hydrology and things like flooding and landslides as well. But protecting public safety has to be an important part of the job of the commissioner and wildfires, flooding, landslides are all an important part of that.

[00:14:04] Crystal Fincher: So, Department of Natural Resources has a mandate to be extractive and generate revenue from our shared public resources. Those revenues benefit things like public schools and things that are very important to our state and our communities, but we also want to preserve habitat and green space and not contribute to worsening climate change. What will your approach be to balancing that?

[00:14:30] Dave Upthegrove: You just described the core tension of this job in that question. I approach this job with strong conservation values. My interest is in ensuring we're protecting clean air, clean water, and habitat. These are not mutually exclusive with the goals of supporting rural economies, creating jobs, funding public services. When the federal government handed over all these lands to the state when we became a state - that's where many of these lands came from, some of the lands were given to us by counties during the Depression - they were put into trust for the beneficiaries. One of the big trusts is for K-12 education, some of it goes to fund some of the work at the State Capitol. The lands we got from the counties during the Depression, some of the money there goes back into local governments. This court ruling I mentioned before, Conservation Northwest v. Franz, clarified a couple things. Number one, we don't have a constitutional mandate to maximize revenue. We do have a responsibility to manage them for the benefit of the trust, but the court also ruled we have responsibility to manage them in the public interest. After all, these are public lands - they belong to "we the people," and I want to make sure that we are balancing that need to generate revenue for the trust with the public interest. Keeping the scale in perspective is important, and I'll tell you what I mean by that. These federal lands - a large chunk of them are in what's called the K-12 trust to fund K-12 public education. All of the timber revenue generated off of all of the K-12 trust lands account for 1.5% of the state share of new school construction. So when you pass a school bond and get matching funds from the state, 1.5% of the matching funds - that's it. Our Superintendent of Public Instruction, Chris Reykdal, has said - Quit pitting trees against schools. You know, I don't need this even. And we absolutely need to fully fund public education. We're underfunding it. We're seeing huge achievement gaps due to inequities and opportunity, but the pathway to fully funding our public education system, unfortunately, is not through DNR. And I like to share that because there's a perception that - Oh, this is how our schools are funded. That being said, some of these county trust lands - some of that money also goes to fund some operating little one-time lump sums out in timber-dependent counties and that can be meaningful.

So it is an important public policy debate and I believe there are strategies to balance it. I'll give you one example - I believe the next commissioner has an opportunity - I think a responsibility - to protect some of our older, more mature forests. I call them the almost-old growth forests, you'll hear activists refer to them as our mature legacy forests. We're not talking tree farms. We're talking naturally regenerated, structurally diverse, they're beautiful when you walk into them - they store the most carbon, they have the most biodiversity. They make up about 3% of our state-owned forest lands, but they have an outsized impact on our climate. And so on Day One, as the next Lands Commissioner voters willing, I intend to sign a mature forest policy that ends the destruction of our mature legacy forests. But the cool thing about this - we can do this and still, as I said, nurture rural economies, create jobs, fund those public services. And we do it by using existing funding streams to acquire replacement timberlands. And these funding streams have names like Natural Climate Solutions Program under the Climate Commitment Act. Or in some cases, the Trust Land Transfer Program. Or if needed, even using state capital bonds. We can then expand our trust holdings. A fun fact I learned in this campaign, 70% - seven zero percent - of the forestry takes place on private timberlands. The state only owns about 30% of our timberlands. And on these private timberlands, it's not unusual for a large investment company that's harvesting them - after they harvest the trees, sometimes will sell off those lands for development. That's a great opportunity for the state to acquire those private timberlands, bring them into our trust, and replant them as tree farms to generate revenue, to generate jobs. And we don't even have to do that immediately. In the short term, we just harvest other parcels. But over the next 40 years, using those funding streams to grow the trust out, we could even end up with more forestry, more trees, more revenue. And so it's a example of how if you're creative you can balance that goal of meeting the public interest in climate change and biodiversity while still working to generate revenue.

[00:19:14] Crystal Fincher: Well, and that leads into the next question I had about rural communities and their greater reliance than urban or suburban areas on the revenue and jobs generated by timberlands. What's your plan to maintain and grow the resilience of rural communities under your tenure?

[00:19:35] Dave Upthegrove: I like the way you frame that because these have been some tough communities that have been through tough times. The Department of Natural Resources should be doing everything we can - not only to manage the lands in a healthy way for future generations, but to maximize that positive impact we can have on people in those communities in terms of the economic work. It's why when I talk about legacy forests, I talk about acquiring replacement timberlands - it's just for that reason, recognizing that this is a balance. When the federal government years ago, the classic - people always remember the spotted owl - but that was what they called the Federal Forest Plan. That made dramatic reductions in how much forestry was taking place on federal lands, and it hurt these rural economies because the economic development that was sort of promised never materialized. If you ever want a fun read, Congressman Derek Kilmer's senior thesis was basically on how the Federal Forest Plan failed rural communities in the economic development. I envision a strong, healthy forest products industry for years to come. The kind of ideas I'm proposing are targeted, strategic, thoughtful ways to transform some of this work to do better for climate and biodiversity - what I'm suggesting is not an agenda akin to the Federal Forest Plan. I think we can be proactive. I think we need to be partnering with priority hire type of processes to ensure that when we're doing this work, we're hiring from local communities.

We need to be looking to diversify the way we're generating revenue off our public lands, because that also diversifies the economic opportunities there. And specifically, I think there's a lot of opportunities in the new clean energy deployment to create local jobs and economic activity. And what I'm talking about there is that there is a state law that says - by 2045, utilities have to provide all their energy in Washington state from clean energy sources. That's coming up fast. We're getting old, so 2045 is less than 20 years away. So there's this huge push right now for utility-scale wind and solar around the state, particularly obviously in rural communities. And I think DNR can play an important role in helping facilitate the development of that new clean energy infrastructure in a way that provides tremendous economic development. And I've proposed the DNR lead a process building off of sort of a pilot program that was done to bring together tribes, environmental community, clean energy developers, and others to essentially map out - literally on a map - okay, where are the tribal sacred spaces we don't want to impact, where is the critical shrub steppe habitat we don't want to destroy, what's geographically suitable for wind and solar. And then have a coordinated state plan to make sure we're meeting those energy needs. And where the state doesn't own the land, to try to get the Legislature to purchase those available lands and put them into a new clean energy trust to help facilitate the development that we then lease to the wind and solar developers. And then take all the revenue we generate off that - put that back into those communities for rural economic development, with a specific focus on helping folks who are low income with their capital costs for transitioning to clean energy. Utilities do a lot of that, but there's some gaps. Clean energy is going to be cheaper for people in the future, but that transition cost can be a burden to marginalized communities. And so I think there's a real role to play in both meeting those clean energy goals, avoiding tribal and environmental conflicts, and funding rural economic development with a focus on environmental justice. And so I'm really excited about that.

My takeaway is - I've been traveling all over the state, working my butt off and getting to know people from Pend Oreille County, spending a lot of time out on the Peninsula - and the communities look different. I represent probably the most diverse corner of the state, but it is amazing to me how common the struggles and challenges are in these communities. Some of the lenses people view them are a little bit different - but whether you are in urban, suburban, diverse South King County, or whether you're out in Clallam County, people are really worried about their economic future for their kids. There's the sense that - I had it okay and my kids aren't going to have those kind of opportunities. There's a tremendous challenge with addiction right now in rural and urban communities. There is a loss of trust in institutions and their ability to solve problems. I really was struck by the similarities - was one of my takeaways of spending so much time out in rural areas over the last eight, nine months - and those economic challenges are real. It isn't always conservation - it's always easy to look to the environmental community. But within the timber industry, we've seen tremendous automation that significant impacts on employment. We see decisions for folks harvesting on private lands to export logs overseas - business decisions made there. There's a lot of factors that go into this, and I think Commissioner Franz has done a good job of focusing in this area and I want to build on that. And I think it's really ensuring we have balance in our timber policies, we're partnering with local communities, and then really seizing the opportunity that this energy transition has to provide jobs. As they always say, these wind and solar jobs - you can't offshore those jobs because you're maintaining and building them right here in our communities.

[00:25:00] Crystal Fincher: So what steps will you take to engage and empower communities disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation, climate change, and natural resource extraction?

[00:25:12] Dave Upthegrove: There is so much work that needs to be done at the department in this area - I spoke to that earlier - culture change that needs to happen. I want to fundamentally change the way that the Department of Natural Resources engages with communities. Specifically, right now, I've been told there are 21 communication staffers at headquarters. Sure, I'd love someone to help with speech writing, but as commissioner, I don't need 21 communication staffers. I want to repurpose a lot of those positions out to the regional offices, not as communications positions, but as community engagement positions. And hire people who are culturally competent, who are well-trained, ideally from those communities where the regional offices are located - where you really get to know the community and build that trust. And then empower them - give them the resources and the authority to do that really early upfront engagement, the kind we know that actually makes a difference - so that they can actually work with the communities and co-create processes and programs that really work for the community. It's so badly needed. I also want to reform the Board of Natural Resources - that's the policymaking board that makes decisions on the timber sales. I would be the chair of that. I want to expand the membership of that. Right now, it is just the trust beneficiaries we talked about. But as I embrace an approach that we have responsibility to manage our forests not just for the trust, but for the public - we ought to have public representatives on there. I'd like to see there be a representative from someone from a disproportionately impacted community, a marginalized community. I'd like to see tribal representation, if they would like, on that board. And then I want to implement substantial reforms to how that board operates. The Superintendent of Public Instruction put forth a number of ideas in a letter - people get frustrated, things are simple, I know this sounds like small ball - but like not being able to get agendas until the night before, never holding meetings in the community, limiting public testimony, having to file Freedom of Information Act requests to get basic information. So I'd like to put a little better staff resources there maybe instead - of one less person promoting me on social media as commissioner, I could have someone working full-time for that board with the community to engage.

I also think there are some changes to some of the policy stuff we do. We have an environmental justice law in the state - it's called the HEAL Act. And it requires the environmental agencies to do racial justice assessments on major agency actions - that's oversimplified, but that's the thrust of what it does. Well, that law exempted a whole bunch of the work at the Department of Natural Resources - probably to get it passed. But it doesn't say you can't do it, it just says it's not mandated. So as commissioner, I intend to go beyond the requirements of the HEAL Act and conduct those racial justice assessments on more of the major agency actions of the department. And I think that is a more formalized way to ensure we're getting systemic change. Also, hiring decisions matter. I want to be very intentional in making sure that those populations most impacted are aggressively recruited and brought into the employment pool so that we can tap into that expertise. And I mentioned earlier - I know it's crazy, but believe it or not, there are literally a hundred different standing committees, advisory committees, standing task forces that inform the work of this big, large department. And there's been a call made in a report to try to diversify those and fill vacancies, but not much work has been done to do that. And so if we have created these formal pathways for officially engaging, let's make sure those tools reflect the diversity of the states. Those are some of the areas, but it really starts with a philosophy change in mindset that we can engage, we should engage. And that communication isn't about promoting the agency, it's about listening and learning. And I think that's one of my takeaways from time in public service, both in the Legislature and in local government, especially representing South King County - it is such a rich diversity within South King County. I've represented probably the most diverse corner of our state for more than 20 years and have found joy in immersing myself in communities of color and immigrant and refugee communities, being present, building authentic relationships and friendships, listening. And working hard to deliver results - like King County eliminated the local match requirement for parks and open space grants in low-income diverse communities, or providing funding to an immigrant and refugee farming cooperative to purchase farmland here in South King County to grow culturally relevant crops. And so at DNR, my mission will be to incorporate equity and social justice into all of our operations and programs using those different tools. And I actually think it's important to approach this work with the same sense of urgency and commitment to change that we do the other environmental work - I put it on the same par in terms of responsibility and importance.

[00:30:17] Crystal Fincher: Now, there are great and necessary discussions about following the lead of sovereign nations, and as you put it, the co-management role of tribes in managing the natural resources of our state. What are examples of that not happening now, and what will that look like in practice in decisions you make and policies you undertake under your leadership?

[00:30:40] Dave Upthegrove: I'll start by saying - as commissioner, I approach my relationship with tribes with respect. We have clear treaty obligations that legally need to be honored, there's a co-management role that needs to be fully realized. But this is not just a legal issue - we have a greater moral responsibility to not turn away from the genocidal legacy of our colonization, the intergenerational pain, a recognition of the racism that continues today. And if we truly value human rights, then the vision of free, prior, informed consent needs to be our aspiration. In my work as commissioner, my relationship with tribes should move us in that direction. My relationship will also be based on listening. I understand Commissioner Franz undertook a substantial body of work to hear from tribes as to how the agency could better fulfill its responsibilities. But other than hiring a liaison, I don't know how much of that feedback has been acted upon. And I think institutionalization of tribal needs throughout the agency is more important than simply having a liaison. And I think the key is robust communication and early consultation - and consultation can't just be lip service, can't be checking a box - we need to be engaging more in genuinely joint planning efforts. And while I'm not familiar with all the work of the commission, I know they have missed the mark in some areas around clean energy deployment, where I think with earlier upfront engagement, they might have avoided some of the conflicts with tribal governments in terms of impacts on sacred spaces. And so I think it is earlier and more genuine joint planning - that's why I said one of my early priorities is to work with tribes on a long-term strategic plan for the use of public lands for clean energy development - we need to protect those sacred spaces. And we shouldn't be pitting clean energy against tribal sovereignty - I think we can do that better. I also think part of a definition of a respectful relationship with the tribes means looking for those opportunities to incorporate indigenous knowledge systems and cultural practices into our work in return, I think. And so, I hope to approach this with those values, to institutionalize this work - and it's something that I've had the opportunity to do in my current role, working locally with the Muckleshoot tribe, as I've led the King County Flood Control District. We've partnered well with them on protecting cultural resources as we do our flood protection work and making sure that we're trying to meet their co-management interest in restoring king salmon in the Green River and helping follow their lead on how to meet those responsibilities. So it's something I look forward to and continue to build upon the work that is being done.

[00:33:29] Crystal Fincher: Is expanding the urban tree canopy a priority for you?

[00:33:33] Dave Upthegrove: Absolutely. When I was in the Legislature, we passed legislation that created the program at DNR that provides the technical assistance and development of model ordinances and the grant programs that fund this work, but it was also during the depression - or I called the recession - in the late 2000s. And so it never really got funded until recently. And I think a few years back, the Legislature finally put some money into that program. The reason it's so important is we know that there is a correlation between trees and green spaces in a community and all kinds of positive outcomes around public health and well-being and achievement. And people use the term tree equity - we actually score communities based on how equitable things are. And it's why - I mentioned already on the King County Council - I sponsored legislation that waived the local match requirement for investments in open space by King County, parks and open space in areas that were low income and diverse. And I know the department is trying to prioritize these grants similarly, using some public health maps to prioritize those - but I think it's been a funding limitation thus far. I certainly will preach from the mountainside the importance of this work and promoting the model ordinances and the financial assistance, educational assistance, technical assistance. We do grants. We've got internships. We've got Arbor Day celebrations. And they're all aimed at trying to help urbanized areas plant more trees and have tree cover, particularly in those areas that need it the most.

There is a disparity - I was very privileged in my life - I grew up in a stable middle-class household, I was put in the Boy Scouts, I spent all my summers in high school and college out on the Hood Canal teaching environmental science, a couple summers leading week-long treks to the North Cascades. But at the same time, you can walk through SeaTac or Tukwila and see young people whose idea of getting outdoors is unfortunately in a hot bat parking lot with broken glass, running around with cars driving by. And I think it is so important that young people, in particular, have the opportunity to experience the beauty of the outdoors, green spaces, safe spaces. It's how you'd create the next generation of environmentalists - not by preaching at people, but by exposing people to it - so getting people out in the outdoors, but also creating communities that are livable. The public health risk of heat is increasingly growing as a risk. And it's one part of a healthy community - we've got food deserts, we have underfunded infrastructure, and it's in these same communities that we also often see a lack of green spaces. And I think it's part of what weaves together to have a healthy, safe, welcoming place to live. And so I'm excited about that part of the job. I also think it deserves more attention - because you mentioned it with the earlier question about economic development - there is a lot of work being done in rural areas by the Department of Natural Resources, but taxpayers all over the state pay into this department and agency. Urban areas should get a return on that investment. We, as a department, should be paying attention - yes, to those rural areas. But we also should find ways to make sure the people in the urban areas get that return. Obviously, there's a broader interest - climate change, biodiversity impacts everyone - clean air, clean water. But the amount we've spent is a pittance. Even with the big increase recently, I think that went from maybe $500,000 to $5 million, maybe a couple staffers - we could be doing so much more in this area to benefit our urban communities.

[00:37:17] Crystal Fincher: Now, DNR has a huge fire department, but also uses incarcerated labor to help fight fires. But they don't get the full pay - now they get minimum wage - but they don't get the same wage as others, they don't get hazard pay, or all of the protections that others have. What's the correct path forward to you?

[00:37:35] Dave Upthegrove: The little bit I know about the program is it's generally a good one. I am not and would not support things like chain gangs - those are racist and dangerous and not a good idea. The best I can tell is - this is designed and operated to be a transitional program to employment post. It's a job skills program that has some parameters around it - they are paid - I would want to get in and look at those safety provisions. Of course, they ought to be compensated fully for their work, I believe - that would take some legislative appropriations to do that - and it's something we may want to pause and slow down until we make sure all those safety standards are in place. I think there are opportunities - the other area I think could use some work, in talking to someone who either had participated in it, is making sure that connection post-release happens. If we're just doing this for cheap labor, that's wrong. If we are doing this to help people develop job skills and transition into good paying career opportunities upon release, that's good and we need to make sure that's what we're doing. And I don't know enough about the details of the program - some of the initial feedback I got was that that's what it's designed to be, that's what it's trying to do. But obviously, we need to - there should be no comparison in terms of safety. And I would welcome the chance to try to make sure that the compensation is more fair than what they're doing, but I think the real need also is to ensure that there's that link. That we really do have pathways to employment - because we're facing a cliff in this department, an employment cliff, in some good high-skilled jobs and good-paying jobs. Wildland wildfire fighters - these are really good-paying positions, even the ones that aren't fully credentialed firefighters, and we need more people into that pathway. We need to diversify it. That wildfire force is white and male, and yet they're really good jobs. Strategies that help make sure we are creating a culture that supports all firefighters and creates pathways for employment would benefit as well. So I have more learning to do about it, but the philosophy I approach is - Cheap labor, chain gangs bad. Good structured programs to help people transition to employment post-release good. And i'll do everything i can to push it in that direction.

[00:40:02] Crystal Fincher: Now, you've alluded to this, but the role of Commmisioner of Public Lands involves management of a very large department with many different elements, a lot of people doing a lot of complex work. What experience do you have managing people and managing large organizations to prepare you for this role?

[00:40:23] Dave Upthegrove: Sure. Many people may not know this, but in my current role as Chair of the King County Council, I supervise about 200 employees and 5 legislative branch agencies. So the agency heads report to me, as does the Chief of Staff to the Council - so I'm responsible for overseeing the administrative, HR, budget, and vision for this branch of government. And while DNR is a much larger agency, I certainly have developed and I believe demonstrated strong executive management and organizational leadership skills. It's going to be important to me to hire excellent staff to fill in those strengths where I have weaknesses - I think that's true of any commissioner - and I recognize that the size of this agency means the commissioner can't do everything. But I can set the vision, set the direction, hire exceptional staff, empower them to do their jobs, ensure people are trained and supportive. And then the role of the commissioner is to be the chief spokesperson, the chief lobbyist to resolve those conflicts that come to my desk that don't get resolved beneath. And I think that's where my experience in local government and the Legislature comes in handy, so I think I bring a good mix of experience that's well-suited to lead this agency.

[00:41:37] Crystal Fincher: Now, there have been concerns raised with candidates in this race about donations received from various industries. Some have received donations from the timber industry. Others have suggested that donations from environmental organizations, or people who may stand to benefit from the lack of monetization from timber but other areas may be a concern. Do you feel that these are valid concerns? And what do you think that donors say about a candidate?

[00:42:07] Dave Upthegrove: Well, just for way of background, I've made the decision - I believe I'm the only leading candidate who's made the decision - not to accept donations from timber companies, their corporate executives, and their lobbyists. And it's because it's the one area where we have a little bit of a regulatory role, through the Forest Practices Board. And I think historically in the agency - not aiming at any one commissioner - but just from a cultural standpoint, that industry really has an oversized influence on the decisions there. And so it was important to me to be independent and that's why I did it. And so I'm proud to be - despite that - to be very successful fundraising, leading the candidates by a wide margin. And I've done that through a large number of grassroots donations - maybe twice as much, many as any other candidate from all corners of the state. I find it hard to criticize that because members of the public care about the environment, that there's something untoward about accepting individuals' contributions. The funny story, apparently at the - King County Democrats interviewed candidates, and one of the candidates who's working closely with the timber industry got called out for those financial contributions. He responded to the calling out - Well, Dave's getting money from a lot of environmentalists. And they snap back and say - Well, that's us - meaning that's the people. And so I would think if one interest group had some larger donation, it's worth looking at. But we have contribution limits here, and I'm proud to be the candidate of the environmental community - to have the sole endorsement of Washington Conservation Action and the Sierra Club, and more importantly, their tens of thousands of members around the state. The grassroots environmental movement has been the backbone of my campaign. Before I decided to run for office last summer, I spent a couple months traveling the state, meeting primarily with grassroots leaders in the conservation movement - sitting at a park in Chimacum under the trees, meeting at a library in Port Angeles, coffee shop in Yakima - listening to people who are impacted by the decisions of this department. And I think having a large number of grassroots donors who care about the public interest in the management of our public lands is something I'm proud of and I wouldn't be ashamed of that at all. And so I'm proud to not take contributions from the industry that we would regulate. And instead strive to fund a campaign through the grassroots, through a people-powered movement from people who care about the environment and care about our public lands.

[00:44:53] Crystal Fincher: Now, as we move to close this interview, what do you say to people who are trying to decide between you and your opponents? What sets you apart and why should they support you?

[00:45:05] Dave Upthegrove: I bring strong environmental and social justice values, and committing to make the kind of transformational change that's urgently needed at this agency. But values and commitment aren't enough. What separates me is that I also bring a relevant background - a lifetime of experience, and a long record of accomplishments on natural resource issues. At the end of the day, I'm the candidate ready to hit the ground running. I'm the candidate who's put forward specific innovative policy proposals - from how we protect our mature legacy forests to the creation of a new clean energy trust. I bring the values, the passion, the commitment to transformational change. But also the experience, the background, the record of accomplishments, executive leadership experience. One thing we haven't talked about - the life experience as a member of a marginalized community - when elected, I'll be the first out LGBT statewide executive officeholder in the history of the state. And by far the strongest campaign that can beat Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler. I'm energizing the base with clear progressive environmental agenda, the chance to make history by electing the first out LGBT executive officeholder. But my strong background, record of accomplishments, breadth of support, history as an effective pragmatic suburban leader positions me best to win over the widest range of statewide voters. We cannot take this general election for granted. Jaime Herrera Beutler is a very credible threat to win - her impeachment vote positions her uniquely to try to make inroads with independents and moderate Democrats. And when you look at folks like Dino Rossi, Rob McKenna - they came very close to winning statewide. How? By making inroads in the suburbs in central Puget Sound - and the working class suburbs like South King County, Pierce County are the most fertile grounds - and polling has shown that there's a need to target those moderate voters in the suburbs of King, Pierce, and Snohomish County. I'm the only candidate who has demonstrated time and time again the ability to win over moderate suburban voters and do it by a wide margin, outperforming other Democrats in the suburb. And so I'm the candidate who can hold on to suburban independents and moderate Democrats and beat Jaime Herrera Beutler. I also think it's important we ought to consolidate behind the environmental community. I am the only candidate that's been endorsed by Washington Conservation Action, the only candidate being supported by the Sierra Club. I'm the progressive candidate in this race with the sole endorsement of Fuse Washington, our largest statewide progressive group. And I'm going to build that big multicultural progressive working class coalition to not only protect our public lands, win this campaign, but move forward a positive agenda for environment and social justice at this department.

[00:47:50] Crystal Fincher: Well, thank you so much for joining us today. Look forward to following this race in the months to come - certainly an excited and competitive one.

[00:47:59] Dave Upthegrove: Thank you - it was great.

[00:48:01] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.

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