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Harvest was just around the corner at the Nunamaker Ranch near Washtucna when this photo was taken.
Photo by Grady Gfeller

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Getting to know Hilary Franz

Fires, rural economies top new commissioner's list of priorities

April 2017

In November, Hilary Franz was elected as the next commissioner of public lands. Previously, she served as the executive director of Futurewise, a statewide environmental conservation organization. She has also served as a Bainbridge Island City councilmember and on numerous conservation, management and economic development boards. She was appointed by Gov. Christine Gregoire to the Washington state’s Climate Action Team IWG on the State Environmental Policy Act. As a lawyer, she has represented local governments, nonprofit organizations and citizen groups on land use and environmental law issues. Franz graduated from Smith College and the Northeastern University School of Law. The new commissioner agreed to answer some questions from Wheat Life regarding her new position and priorities and how the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages leases on state lands.

What made you decide to run for Commissioner of Public Lands?

The land and the important connection between land and community made me decide to run for commissioner of public lands. As a third-generation farmer and small-forest landowner, my family and I have always had a deep connection to the land and an understanding of its value for our community, our economy and our environment. As we face a rapidly growing population and an ever-changing environment, I believe it is even more critical that we ensure our working farmlands and working forest lands can continue and even expand. Our communities, our economies and our environment will depend on our natural resources lands more than ever before. For 20 years, I have worked closely with local, state and federal government and with private and nonprofit partners to ensure the long-term health and sustainability of our waterways and working farms and forests. As commissioner of public lands, I will draw from my past experiences and partnerships and work closely with citizens, industries, communities, trust land beneficiaries and others to strengthen our state’s rural forest and agricultural economies while ensuring the long-term health of our water, food and wood resources.

What are some of the issues you’ll be tackling?

I have several top priorities I will be working to address. The first priority is reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire. We are seeing more catastrophic wildfires, which have a significant impact on public health and safety, our natural resource economies and our environment. I’m focused on working with those who are affected by these fires and those that fight them to develop and implement critical strategies to ensure that we are better prepared to reduce the impacts and severity of these wildfires.

One of the most significant ways to reduce the wildfire threat is to focus on forest health treatments. We have 2.7 million acres of forests—federal, state and tribal lands—that are in poor health due to disease, drought and insect infestation. We need to make progress on restoring the health of these landscapes from actively managing these forests through use of prescribed burns, selective thinning and diversifying the tree stock. To that end, we are developing a 20-year plan to restore the health of these forests. This legislative session, I’ve requested more support to help public and private landowners. Our $25 million forest health request would go toward thinning and prescribed burns for upwards of 50,000 acres of state, private and federal fuel reduction efforts. This includes help for communities and homeowners who are doing what they can to prepare for the reality of living in an era of growing wildfire risk.

My other top priority is strengthening our rural economies. For too long, our rural communities that are dependent on strong natural resource economies have been struggling to provide for their families. I believe the Department of Natural Resources can be a valuable partner with our rural communities by helping diversify local economies, support critical infrastructure investments, ensure production on public lands and increase access to capital and state and federal funding opportunities. I look forward to working with local communities to help improve opportunities in our rural communities and to grow our natural resource economies.

How will your background as the former executive director of Futurewise influence your term as commissioner of public lands?

Futurewise focused on preventing the conversion of working farmlands and forests into subdivisions and other development. Our natural resource lands are critical to the long-term health of our communities, our economy and our environment. In my four years at Futurewise, I worked to change the culture of the organization from litigating local governments to partnering with local and state government on critical issues of protecting working farmlands and forest lands, ensuring affordable housing and investing in critical transportation our state depends on. I will use this experience in partnering with local communities and nonprofit, public and private sectors as commissioner of public lands to closely collaborate with citizens, landowners, businesses, governments and nonprofit partners to promote a balanced and sustainable approach to managing Washington’s public lands.

Recently, the department acknowledged that it hadn’t communicated very well with farmers who had leases terminated early. What do you perceive are the communication problems within the department and how do you plan to fix them?

Before my time with the agency, DNR staff did act to terminate several dryland leases early in order to retain precious Columbia River water rights on thousands of acres of land. Based on feedback, it’s clear that DNR needs to spend more time improving relationships and ensuring effective and frequent communication with our communities, stakeholders and lessees. I will be working to make DNR a more outward facing agency with stronger relationships and more frequent interactions with those communities we work in and with the entities we work with. Additionally, we will lengthen our notification periods (at least 180 days) as a standard business practice.

In standard DNR leasing contracts, there are no reimbursements for farmers when DNR terminates a lease early. Why?

I have tremendous respect for our lessee farmers and permitholders. They’re valued business associates, and it’s only through them that we’re able to manage lands sustainably and generate revenue for trust beneficiaries. To ensure that the beneficiaries are gaining the maximum benefit from the use of the lands the department manages, it is sometime necessary to transition these lands. The only reason we will terminate a lease (barring lessee violations) is when a higher or better use is available for the property, such as taking advantage of water rights—and especially if those water rights could be lost by not doing so.

When the agency does take the uncommon step of asking to terminate a lease, the farmer is allowed to continue using the land until the planted crops are harvested. DNR staff then gives farmers 60 additional days after their lease terminates to remove improvements they’ve made that can’t be sold to subsequent lessees. Agency staff also return any prepaid rent or fees beyond the end of the contract period.

I look forward to conversations with farmers on how we can improve our approach to support all of our mutual work.

We’ve heard reports that DNR is buying former agricultural land at highly inflated prices, effectively pricing farmers out of the market. How is the price DNR offers for land calculated?

DNR does not pay more than what willing private sellers are asking for their lands. Like other buyers, we determine the fair market value of a piece of land by looking at its current and highest best uses, the current and potential lease rates as well as the location, soil and availability of reliable water sources. As buyers, we’ve sometimes been able to offer sellers short-term lease-backs and other standard arrangements in the industry that other buyers might not choose to offer.

DNR purchases agriculture and forest lands using the proceeds from our sales of other trust lands. To keep the beneficiaries of today and tomorrow whole we must reinvest our land sales proceeds into other revenue-producing lands, not let it sit in accounts, especially at today’s historically low interest rates.

What is the justification for a state agency to regularly outbid private citizens when agricultural land is being sold?

The state offers fair market value for land investments. We do so because, ultimately, DNR’s fiduciary obligation to trust beneficiaries requires the agency to be prudent managers and business agents.

It seems that out-of-control wildfires have become a regular occurrence every summer. What are your goals with this issue and how do you intend to reach them?

To get ahead, and stay ahead, of the growing wildfire situation won’t be quick, easy or cheap. Washington needs improved wildfire response statewide. Improving forest health is a big part of that, but I’ve also asked the Legislature for $13 million in additional funds to help DNR increase its wildfire training programs and provide more equipment and support to local partners. We further intend to increase aircraft availability; data and information gathering technologies; weather stations and remote IT equipment; and add 10 engines and 42 firefighters. There is no quick, cheap fix. Going forward, we are developing a 20-year plan to build capacity and resources and develop and implement the most effective multi-agency wildfire fighting team. We must assure that we have well-prepared, trained and equipped crews on the ground and in the air—from state DNR, federal and local responders—to put fires out quickly.