Wednesday morning Washington State Senator Rebecca Saldaña announced her campaign to run the Department of Natural Resources as lands commissioner, a position Hilary Franz will vacate if she fully commits to her gubernatorial bid next year. With her announcement, Saldaña joins a crowded field of people angling to manage more than five million acres of land that can catch fire, grow trees, pollute waters, inspire wonder, and support housing as the planet continues to melt. Kind of a big deal.
From (roughly) left to right on the political spectrum, other candidates who've formed committees or who've expressed interest include former State Sen. Mona Das, Makah Tribal member Patrick Finedays DePoe, King County Council Member Dave Upthegrove, current state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, and 2020 GOP loser Sue Kuehl Pederson. The rumor mill says former Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler might hop in, too. Back in May, Herrera Beutler told KUOW she hadn't "closed any doors."
Following Pramila Jayapal's ascension to Congress, the King County Council appointed Saldaña to represent Seattle's South End the senate, where she served as vice chair of the transportation committee for a couple years. She knocked out a no-name Republican in 2018 and ran un-opposed in 2022.
Of the current contenders, Sen. Saldaña stands out as a lefty. In the Legislature, she helped lead a culture change in an institution dominated by dirty old white men, stood with workers on picket lines and in legislation, and championed several priorities from the environmental justice movement, perhaps most notably the HEAL Act, which helps relevant state agencies center the needs of communities most vulnerable to changes in the climate. All pretty true to form, coming from the former executive director of Puget Sound Sage, a group that advocates for racial equity in transportation, housing, labor, and climate issues.
Nevertheless, all the recent wildfires and heat-domes combined with a lack of revenue for devastated rural communities diminish the felt impact those legislative wins, she said over the phone. In fact, watching climate change continue to hit those on the frontlines of the crisis the hardest despite her best efforts in the Senate spurred her run.
As executive, she'd "get Big Timber and Big Agri-business out of the driver's seat" by putting people from rural communities and from the environmental justice world on the Board of Natural Resources. She'd also appoint those same sorts of advocates to her cabinet.
In terms of policy, she wants to help reduce fire risk by expanding the buffer zone between Washington's managed lands and areas where people live, and also increase areas to recreate on those managed lands. And if the Legislature doesn't pass Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal's bill to use money from timber sales to fund rural schools and "sustaining healthy forests" in the upcoming short session, then she'd request it as the head of DNR. She argued that her background as an organizer, her deep roots in the environmental justice community, and her connections with other lawmakers should help her achieve those goals.
If she wins, she'd be the first woman of color to hold a statewide executive seat in Washington. The path to that peak will be tough, though, especially with all the possible vote-splitting among the Dems, and especially if Herrera Beutler comes in with her money and her name recognition and her regional proximity to Washington's best volcano.