Sam Taylor of our sister McClatchy paper, The Bellingham Herald, filed this report from today’s “debate” in the lands commissioner race.
BLAINE, Whatcom County – It wasn’t much of a debate Thursday between the two candidates for state commissioner of public lands.
One of them didn’t show up.
Republican Lands Commissioner Doug Sutherland had written down the wrong time for the debate at the Association of Washington Business policy summit.
"When you mess up your calendar, you mess up your calendar," Sutherland said after entering the banquet hall at Semiahmoo Resort as debate moderators wrapped up the 30-minute conversation with Democratic challenger Peter Goldmark.
Though the lands commissioner is one of the lesser-known executive positions, this year’s race between the two candidates is considered one of the closest and interesting to watch.
The commissioner is in charge of the state Department of Natural Resources and manages about 5 million acres of state land. The position includes regulation and enforcement of various environmental regulations, especially on timber harvesting, and working on wildfire management.
Sutherland is a former Tacoma mayor and Pierce County executive seeking a third term as lands commissioner. He bested Goldmark in the August primary 51 percent to 49 percent.
Despite his absence, the Thursday "debate" went on. Goldmark, who lives in Seattle and maintains a family ranch near Okanogan, answering questions on his many campaign contributions from environmentalists, wildfire protection, potential logging in areas with endangered species such as the spotted owl and how he’d do the job differently than Sutherland.
Goldmark painted Sutherland as an incumbent who has cost the state millions in court fees, doesn’t enforce regulations on the books and is unresponsive to the public when making deals with special interests trying to benefit from state land.
The Democratic challenger highlighted his own resume, touting himself as a volunteer firefighter who loves his community and is accessible to taxpayers and others with a stake in public lands issues.
"Above all I will bring fairness to an agency that the public needs to trust," he said, adding that he’d make sure "all of the public is treated with respect, and that includes the employees."
In an interview after the event, Sutherland took aim at Goldmark, pointing out that the Democrat’s experience as state director of agriculture under Gov. Mike Lowry in the early 1990s was for only a four-month stint.
"My opponent is working really hard to find an issue," the commissioner said.
When Goldmark was asked about December landslides on state land in Lewis County, he said Sutherland’s lack of oversight meant too much timber had been harvested, making the ground unstable on the steep slopes.
A Seattle Times investigation concluded that "scant oversight" by DNR geologists was a factor in the slides. Sutherland, though, has said the slides occurred because of a 100-year or 500-year storm.
Goldmark said that out of 87 clearcuts on state land approved by Sutherland’s administration, 42 slides occurred with no state geologist overseeing the work.
"As a public official I would want to make sure there were protections for the public," he said.
He also said that Sutherland lost a legal battle to increase timber harvest levels to 30 percent per year, which would impact climate change and likely isn’t a sustainable level of harvesting for Washington.
Sutherland and his supporters argue that timber harvest rules are approved by a bipartisan board that assessed the incumbent’s proposal.
On Thursday, Sutherland also said that the lawsuits Goldmark spoke about weren’t the DNR’s doing. And, he said, since 2004, of 175 lawsuits just three were lost and 16 were ended in negotiation.
"It’s always an environmental group looking for another bite of the apple," Sutherland said.