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Hilary Franz Has Her Eye on Public Lands—and Beyond

Washington's commissioner of public lands reimagined wildfire fighting and isn't ruling out a run for higher office.

By Allison Williams January 23, 2023

Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, who works in Olympia but spends much of her time traveling the state, in Discovery Park.

The dinner table left a lifelong impression on Hilary Franz. As a child she sat between her single father, an analyst for the city of Portland with a passion for government work, and her grandfather, a rancher in rural Pierce County who espoused self-reliance. “You’d watch them fighting vehemently,” she says, but even as a kid she thought, “You guys have more in common than you really think.” After practicing environmental land use law and then serving on Bainbridge City Council, Franz was elected Washington’s commissioner of public lands in 2016. She sees how the Department of Natural Resources can bridge those dinner table viewpoints, like leasing state-held lands to fund education or building a wildfire response program that doesn’t lean on federal support. With a black belt in kickboxing and the last of her three sons out of the house, Franz fairly trembles with excitement over ramping up her statewide travels to view DNR lands. “You meet the people there and spend time on the landscape and it’s one of the best parts of this job,” she says.


On her formative years

My dad believed in the basics of governance. That it truly provides.

I spent every day after school at city hall. He’d have me check the budget to make sure the math was right.

I also grew up ice skating on the same rink as Tonya Harding, four hours a day, six days a week. 

My motto is: Avoid the crowbar and always carry a blade, works better in firefighting.

On the Department of Natural Resources

Every state has a governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general—but there’s only five commissioners of public lands in the entire nation.

I oversee a 1,600-person agency. But it’s basically six agencies.

There is 2.6 million acres of aquatic land: the entire coast, Puget Sound, all your rivers, lakes, streams. We manage the bedlands, all the land underwater.

We lease some of those lands, so the ferris wheel in Seattle is a tenant of ours. So are a lot of the floating homes on Lake Union.

There’s three million acres of uplands, lands above water. We’re actually the largest wheat producer in the state. We’re becoming the one of the largest vineyard producers. 

We also do geology. We’re a very volatile state—we have five live volcanoes, the threat of the big earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides. 

Every single community and every single landscape is different. It’s only by getting out on the land to really understand the problem, but also see the opportunity.

On rumors of a future run

It’s not easy being a public servant, and especially in the time and era that we’re in, where it’s very divisive, and it’s really easy to throw attacks at our government.

I ran for city council on Bainbridge Island when my baby was two years old. I thought I’d dip my toe in, because local government level is where you really have the most impact.

I realized I’m more of an executive, building big teams and sort of setting big goals. Developing that real significant plan and strategy, and then getting the resources and implementing them.

People are asking me to run for a higher position. Everybody knows it.

I am interested in running for a higher position. I’m also very much focused, though, on getting this job done.

I can do this for another 20 years.

 

How DNR won social media

I don’t think the communications team felt the safety to be creative, to be able to bring their own energy and their excitement and their passion.

We said, Go tell your story. Go tell your story any way you want. I’ve asked them to be as funny as possible.

This is the embarrassing part. I’m not aware of all of the things they’re talking about.

There was a Kate Bush joke. I listened to Kate Bush in college! She was barely hip, and now she’s really effing cool.

Fox national news picked up that tweet and asked for an interview with me. They asked about Stranger Things, it was really embarrassing.

But I am hoping to get a little more hip.

The challenge of wildfire

There’s no slow day. And with climate change, there’s even less.

Wildfires and dying forests have become almost an all-year endeavor. Most of our fires are on federal lands, but we are then immediately part of the team.

A million acres burned in 2015. Three firefighters lost their lives; it was a real wake-up call to Washington state.

We had eight [firefighting] helicopters that all fought in the Vietnam War. One had the bullet holes to show for it. We were getting $0 in the budget for wildfires.

We first developed a wildfire strategic plan. We changed the way we fight fires before money even came; we have an initial attack the moment smoke is in the air.

I have three boys, and many of these young men and women firefighters are younger than my oldest. 

Every single day of fire season you’re like, God, just please make sure every one of them comes home alive.

We got House Bill 1168 with $500 million over the next four bienniums for wildfire response, forest restoration, and community resilience.

Last year was the worst drought in Washington state’s history. We had around about 600,000 acres burned, but we kept 94 percent of our fires below 10 acres.

We took control of our destiny.

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