By Kate Michael

Crosscut’s Editor-at-Large Knute Berger (left) walks with Hilary Franz and Larry Leach (right), assistant regional manager of Washington State lands in October 2018.
Crosscut’s Editor-at-Large Knute Berger (left) walks with Hilary Franz and Larry Leach (right), assistant regional manager of Washington State lands in October 2018. Photo Courtesy of Dorothy Edwards, Crosscut.

PERHAPS IT IS BECAUSE Hilary Franz has a family farm in Pierce County, Wash. that hosts a habitat of uncommonly situated Ponderosa pine. Or, perhaps it’s because she’s stewarded a third-generation farm on Bainbridge Island, Wash. Either way, Hilary Franz’s ties to the land have resulted in a fierce fighting spirit for conservation and strong rural economies.

Endorsed by her retiring predecessor and with support from a coalition of environmental groups and labor associations, Franz was successfully elected as Washington state’s Commissioner of Public Lands in 2016, and has been boldly leading the charge to “safeguard the environment, values and support local economies” since taking office. Along with that, she has also constructed an unprecedented 20-year strategic plan for restoring forest health and reducing wildfire risk in central and eastern Washington.

As Commissioner, Franz protects and manages nearly 6 million acres of public lands in Washington State — from coastal waters and aquatic reserves, to working forests and farms, to commercial developments and recreation areas. As the leader of the state’s wildfire fighting force, Franz has seen firsthand the damaging effects of severe wildfires, and she is not sitting idly by.

“Hot, dry conditions coupled with diseased and dying forests are leading to explosive wildfires, which threaten our communities and fill our summer skies with smoke,” says the Washington State Department of Natural Resources web- site. Franz, insisting that wildfire is “not an eastside or westside problem, an urban or rural problem,” called on the state to present a strong start to a solution. Then, she went many steps further.

“Wildfire is a problem for all of Washington,” says Franz. “That is why we developed an ‘all lands, all hands’ approach, one that calls for urgent, transformative change in how our state confronts wildfire.”

In this she involves everyone — from federal agencies all the way down to those who own just a few acres of wooded property — with particular involvement from some 33 organizations and agencies who together created the state’s 20-Year Forest Health Strategic Plan.

For her leadership in crafting this strategic plan, she was presented with American Forests’ first ever Forest Resilience Champion Award.

“The plan’s development was intentionally designed to engage a diverse range of partners that are committed to continuing to work together to implement cross-boundary solutions,” she says.

Grounded in science and setting an ambitious goal of restoring 1.25 million acres of forest to healthy conditions, increasing fire resilience, and better protecting communities, the plan calls for active management using techniques like prescribed burns and thinning.

Some specifics of the plan call for removing small tree overcrowding, increasing demand for small-diameter timber (trees too small or too far from mills), and using biomass (by-products of forest management activities) — like creating pellets for wood stoves — which also reduces energy costs for consumers. The plan even kick-started a bioenergy pilot project, supported by Washington’s Department of Natural Resources, which helped Washington’s Northport School District install a wood pellet boiler to heat its school a first of its kind project in the state.

Franz is also leading the push to make Washington’s lands resilient in the face of climate change by investing in carbon sequestration and clean energy, like wind, solar and geothermal infrastructure.

An overarching goal for Franz is to enhance economic development through the implementation of forest restoration and management strategies that maintain and attract private sector investments and employment in rural communities. This is because Franz believes that forest health, wildfire risk and rural economic development are inextricably linked.

“Our rural communities, and all people in Washington state, benefit from well-managed, resilient forest ecosystems that provide timber products, natural resource and recreation jobs, wildlife habitat, clean water and many other important ecosystem services and social values,” says Franz.

In addition, Franz and her department have made grants available for forest organizations to work toward these goals.

“For every $1 million spent on forest restoration there is $5.7 million generated in economic returns,” she says.

According to Franz, “Improving the health of our forests benefits almost every aspect of our lives. Forests provide for strong rural economies and jobs. Forests enrich us through recreation and solitude. Forests protect our water supplies and provide important habitat for fish and wildlife. Moreover, healthy forests reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfires that threaten communities and the forests we value. There has never been more urgency to address forest health in Washington.”

Kate Michael writes from Washington, D.C. and is a lifestyle editor and publisher.