State Senator Rebecca Saldaña (D-37), a champion of environmental justice and workers’ rights, announced her campaign for Commissioner of Public Lands in September, a position which leads the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in protecting nearly six million acres of public trust lands.
Saldaña, whose legislative district includes the Chinatown International District and much of Southeast Seattle, hopes to succeed Hilary Franz, who is leaving the position to run for Governor next year.
“I’m running because I believe that the next Commissioner needs to be someone that is rooted in communities that have been historically excluded,” Saldaña said. As Commissioner, Saldaña said she would ensure the DNR stewards the lands for all, and not just for big business like the timber industry.
Other candidates who have announced their campaigns so far are Democrat and former State Sen. Mona Das; Patrick DePoe, a Makah Tribal leader and Director of Tribal Relations for the Department of Natural Resources; King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove; and Democratic State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege.
Commissioner Franz has already endorsed DePoe.
So far, Saldaña has been endorsed by ten of her colleagues in the legislature, Seattle City Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales, Port Commissioner Toshiko Hasegawa, and others.
In Olympia, Saldaña served on the Transportation Committee, and sponsored successful legislation including the Washington Voting Rights Act, and the Healthy Environment for All Act (HEAL Act), the first statewide law to address environmental justice.
The HEAL Act directs the state departments of Ecology, Agriculture, Commerce, Health, Natural Resources, Transportation, and the Puget Sound Partnership to coordinate in addressing environmental health disparities for People of Color and low income people disproportionately impacted by environmental health impacts. It empowers the Department of Ecology to incorporate environmental justice into strategic plans, budget development, and funding and grant decisions — for example, aiming to direct 40 percent of grants that create environmental benefits to “vulnerable populations and overburdened communities.”
Saldaña said she would continue implementing environmental justice as Public Lands Commissioner. “Having someone like me in that leadership role will actually make sure that we move forward and not go backwards, which so often can happen, because doing racial justice work incorporated into how we govern is not easy, and it’s not the status quo,” she said.
Saldaña grew up in the Delridge neighborhood of Seattle, in a superfund site. Her father was a Mexican immigrant farm worker who later worked as a machinist. Saldaña grew up hearing stories of his difficult life picking cotton in racially-segregated Texas. Her mother, a white social worker from Midwestern farming roots.
Saldaña studied feminist philosophy and liberation theology in college, where she worked as a union organizer for farm workers and janitors as part of MEChA. She came to see commonalities with her father’s story, and the systemic racism and entrenched systems that don’t treat agricultural laborers with dignity.
Before she was appointed to the legislature, Saldaña served as Executive Director of Puget Sound Sage, a nonprofit that works to promote affordable housing, equitable transportation, and environmental justice.
Saldaña was inspired to run after seeing the immediate impacts of wildfire, smoke and extreme heat on people working outdoors, and realizing these extremes also make it impossible for kids to spend time outside. “It really undermines the impact of what we’re trying to do, what I’ve been dedicating my life to,” she said.
She was also inspired by the forest stewardship work of her colleague former Senator Christine Rolfes, who now serves on the Kitsap County board of commissioners. With Rolfes opting not to run for Public Lands Commissioner, Saldaña decided to campaign for the seat.
As Commissioner, Saldaña wants to steer the DNR beyond just using public lands to generate benefits, and through a “just transition” aimed at preventing climate change. This could mean helping rural communities that most depend on timber revenues diversify their funding sources to preserve more forest.
To prevent the devastation caused by wildfire, Saldaña suggested the DNR could partner with local communities to be more thoughtful about where the state is adding buildable lands. “Because it is as encroachment happens, and people get closer to forests, that the devastation of a community is much, much harsher,” she said. As Commissioner, her office could do more engagement and education to build community resiliency and preventative measures in anticipation of fires, she said.
She notes that the DNR should continue supporting some 2,000 scientists and researchers the agency employs, ensuring they have resources to focus on their science and come up with creative solutions to fire management and other issues.
If Saldaña is elected next year, she will be the first woman of color to hold a statewide seat in Washington.
“It’s humbling,” Saldaña said. “It’s enraging that in 2023, me running for statewide office would even put me in that place of being the first bilingual, bicultural, woman of color to run and win for a statewide office.”
“So many Latinos across our nation and our world are being impacted by climate, many of us still work the land, and I’m just one generation from farm work,” she said. “We experience pollution and the impact of not facing climate change, and coming up with solutions. So I think that really is so meaningful to me.”
Saldaña sees the history of the CID as rife with environmental injustices, such as construction of I-5 through the neighborhood. At the same time, she points to the CID as an example of multiracial organizing, and a place where important work around community land ownership and development is being done.
At the suggestion of her colleague Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37), Saldaña recently read America Is in the Heart, a semi-autobiographical novel by Filipino American writer and activist Carlos Bulosan that recounts the struggles of himself and other Filipinos working in Pacific Northwest fisheries and as a migrant laborer.
Saldaña said the more she learns about the history of the Filipino American, Japanese American communities and others, the more commonalities she sees with her own story and that of people in Washington today. “This story is our same story in terms of where we come from, what pushes people off their lands,” she said. “What harms us is not having that connection to land, that connection to forests, and trees and waters.”
“When we are coming from our best selves and from our love for a community and wanting to make sure that we’re creating tents that are big enough for all of us — I think that’s the part that I find really resonant,” she said. “And as I kind of discerned and thought about this particular position, it’s those stories that have been really inspiring me.”