It's not unusual for elected officials to cozy up to people with money. Yet Washington Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark's relationship with the timber industry he regulates has changed dramatically since the two-term Democrat first ran for the office six years ago.
On the 31st floor of a downtown Seattle skyscraper, the Plum Creek Timber Company hosted a private fundraising reception Friday evening for Congresswoman Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., with a guest appearance scheduled by Congressman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. Suggested contributions ranged from $1,000 to $5,200 — the maximum an individual may give to a candidate in one election year under federal law.
The invitation for the reception (embedded below) listed Commissioner Goldmark, Bob Jirsa of Plum Creek Timber, the Plum Creek Political Action Committee and the Weyerhaeuser Political Action Committee as co-hosts. Weyerhaeuser owns 1.3 million acres in Washington state, making it the state's largest private owner of forest land. Plum Creek is in the state's top 10, with 83,000 acres.
Commissioner Goldmark regulates both firms' forest practices as head of the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
Goldmark canceled his appearance shortly before the event. His assistant said he was ill.
Plum Creek spokesperson Kathy Budinick said the company has no plans to host any more fundraisers at its headquarters.
In 2008, Goldmark campaigned against the Department of Natural Resources's lax regulation of logging on steep, landslide-prone slopes owned by Weyerhaeuser and other timber companies in southwest Washington.
"A lack of appropriate oversight, and I will change that," he promised in an Oct. 2008 debate at the Gig Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
I will make sure that public health and safety is a very important component of approval of all timber harvest permits, particularly where there are steep slopes involved. We clearly have the authority to do that, and we we need to exercise that authority to make sure that downstream property owners and downstream lives are not at risk.
The state's timber industry spent some $770,000 trying to keep Goldmark out of office in 2008.
Goldmark attacked his Republican predecessor, Doug Sutherland, and his reliance on industry cash.
"Over half of his campaign money comes from the very industries that he's charged with regulating. I think that produces a distinct conflict of interest. I will not accept money from the industries that I'll be regulating," Goldmark said.
Washington Public Disclosure Commission records show he kept his pledge in 2008.
I will not accept money from the industries that I'll be regulating.
But in his reelection bid in 2012, Goldmark took in $90,000 from the timber industry, one-sixth of his campaign funding that year.
PDC records show no timber company donating to his 2012 opponent, Republican Clint Didier.
"It's true, I pledged not to take any campaign contributions during the 2008 campaign," Goldmark said on Tuesday. "In 2012, I did not make such a pledge."
He said he saw no problem with accepting contributions from industries that he regulates. He said it was a bit odd to be asked about it now, when no one complained about it in 2012.
"I'm proud of the fact I was supported by many, many different interest groups," Goldmark said. "Regardless of who supports me, I will continue to work for the public."
Weyerhaeuser spokesman Anthony Chavez declined to be interviewed. In an emailed statement, Chavez said, "Our support for Commissioner Goldmark is based on his demonstrated willingness to listen to all stakeholders and consider science and data when making policy decisions."
Many environmentalists backed Goldmark for office in 2008 and 2012. Some have lost their enthusiasm since the deadly Oso landslide in March.
A small portion of the no-logging area around the Oso landslide zone — mandated by the state's Forest Practices Act to avoid worsening the risk of a deep-seated landslide — had been clear-cut in 2004, when Sutherland was still the head of DNR.
Goldmark has dismissed questions of the role logging might have played in the recent landslide as inappropriate or even trying to exploit a tragedy. Environmentalists have wondered why he has taken this stance.
"If Commissioner Goldmark said, look, the relationship between logging and landslides is complicated, the history of Oso is complicated, but we're going to do our best to get to the bottom of it, and we're going to try to do our best to protect public safety, I think we'd all be fine with that," said Mitch Friedman, executive director of Conservation Northwest and a Goldmark campaign contributor in 2008 and 2012.
"Instead, he seems to be hinting that we shouldn't be concerned, that there's no relationship between the two, and anyone that would suggest otherwise is doing so inappropriately. He's passing the buck a bit."
It took the Department of Natural Resources about six years to get to the bottom of the 2007 landslides in southwest Washington.
The agency completed the second of two big studies of the slides last year — five years after Goldmark made campaign hay of those slides in 2008.
In addition to regulating forest practices on private land, the Department of Natural Resources manages 5.6 million acres of public land. Friedman said that puts the Lands Commissioner in a difficult position.
"The Lands Commissioner is both a logger and a regulator of loggers," he said. "That's a mix of identities that I think could spin a lot of people."
This was first reported for KUOW.