New Wash. lands commissioner to update fire policy

New Wash. lands commissioner to update fire policy

9 December 2008

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USA — Washington’s new public lands commissioner says he wants the state to respond more quickly to wildfires.

As a longtime volunteer firefighter, Peter Goldmark says he understands how red tape and unclear protocols can slow fire response.

“It’s obvious that we need to put out the fire first and squabble about who is paying for it later,” Goldmark says. During his campaign, he hammered the state’s slow response in a Spokane area wildfire last summer that destroyed 12 homes and caused $50 million in property damage.

In an Associated Press interview Monday outlining his plans, Democrat Goldmark said he’ll do things different than his Republican predecessor, Doug Sutherland, when he takes over in January as head of the Department of Natural Resources.

Goldmark said he’ll get more public input, consider the health of Puget Sound in agency decisions, increase oversight of clearcutting on steep slopes on private land and explore pilot projects to convert biomass such as wood waste into energy.

The agency manages more than 5.6 million acres of state lands, with revenue used primarily to pay for construction of schools, universities and other state facilities. It also coordinates the state’s interagency response to wildfires.

Natural Resources won’t be a lone wolf in issues that affect Puget Sound.

Goldmark said he’ll make sure the agency’s priorities match those of the Puget Sound Partnership, which released a blueprint this month for restoring those waters.

Leases for docks on aquatic lands, geoduck harvesting or other activities, for example, will be handled in a way that’s consistent with a healthy Puget Sound, Goldmark said.

The Okanogan County rancher said he was distressed that Sutherland approved a 30-year lease last week. The lease allows a mining company subsidiary of Glacier Northwest Inc. to build a barge-loading pier on state aquatic lands to expand gravel mine operations on Maury Island.

Environmentalists, who backed Goldmark, had asked Sutherland to leave the decision to his successor. They have fought the expansion for a decade, saying the new dock would harm endangered orcas and salmon and critical habitat.

Goldmark said he’ll explore the Maury Island issue but isn’t sure yet what actions he will take.

The 62-year-old Goldmark, who has a doctorate in molecular biology, also said he’ll bring a more science-based approach to the way the state approves permits for timber harvests on steep slopes on private lands.

The issue of clearcuts on steep slopes became a central one during the campaign. Goldmark said lax enforcement of timber harvest rules led to mudslides and widespread flooding in Lewis County in December 2007. Sutherland blamed a storm that dumped 20 inches of rain in a short period.

Goldmark said he’ll make sure a state geologist reviews landslide risks before permits are issued for timber harvest in steep areas. And he’ll work with University of Washington researchers to map regions in the state that are at risk of landslides.

The new lands commissioner predicted that his first months will be focused on the budget, and trying to preserve the agency’s core mission as the state makes drastic reductions to balance its expected deficit.

He said he’ll also work with nonprofit groups to preserve public lands, develop pilot projects to convert biomass to electricity or liquid fuels and increase the amount of wood certified under the Forest Stewardship Council standard.

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