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Breaking a glass ceiling: King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove's race for Commissioner of Public Lands

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Examining Des Moines Creek with local environmentalist Brett Fish — Dave Upthegrove
Examining Des Moines Creek with local environmentalist Brett Fish — Dave Upthegrove

With an upcoming presidential election and a string of local ones, King County Council Chair Dave Upthegrove has the potential to make history this November. If elected as the next Commissioner of Public Lands, he would become the first out LGBTQ statewide executive office holder in Washington's history.

"We have a chance to break a little bit of a glass ceiling...at a time when visibility is more important than ever," Upthegrove told the SGN. "We are seeing bans of LGBT books around the country. We're seeing a backlash against the Transgender community. We see attempts to make our community invisible through bans on curriculum, and visibility — including among elected leaders — I think is critical right now."

Getting out to vote is more important now than ever before. While Upthegrove is concerned about Biden facing Trump in this year's presidential election, he is unsure of how the events in Gaza — and the number of uncommitted votes in the primaries — will impact local elections.

"There are other important things on the ballot. There's efforts to repeal the strongest climate change law in the nation — it's going to be on the ballot," Upthegrove said. "There's an effort to repeal the capital gains tax, a tax on millionaires that funds our schools. Progressives ought to show up and vote against repealing those things."

The November ballot will include other races, like those for city councils and school boards, which can impact community and individual experiences.

"Who you elect to your school board can have an impact on whether LGBTQ families feel welcome at your school. Who you elect to the legislature can really impact state laws [about] the Transgender community. Up and down the ballot, there are important decisions, and it's so important that people get out and vote," Upthegrove said.

Upthegrove lives with his husband Chad, his cat Dobby, and his dog Benji. While he's not running his race as an openly Gay candidate per se but rather based on his qualifications, he believes increasing the number of elected officials who identify as LGBTQ is badly needed.

"I also bring that life experience, and it's life experience that will allow me to be a voice for the LGBT community on a platform and stage that can be helpful, and I'm excited about that," he said.

Dave Upthegrove  

Environmental advocacy
Upthegrove spent his high school and college summers teaching environmental science to youth near the Hood Canal and led weeklong treks through the North Cascade Mountains. While engaging in environmental activism at the University of Colorado, he received a degree in environmental science and biology, while also falling in love with politics. He later earned a graduate certificate in energy policy.

Upthegrove's summers spent in college working with a group of teenagers contributed to his love of backpacking. He and the group would leave for six days to disconnect in nature, crossing mountain passes, camping out in meadows on mountaintops, watching shooting stars, and exploring small remnants of glaciers.

"I love going on a longer trip, like for a week, where you set a break camp each night out in the wilderness," Upthegrove said.

Later, during his 12 years as a member of Washington State's House of Representatives, he served as the chair of the Select Committee on Puget Sound. In his position as the chair of the Environment Committee, Upthegrove worked across the state on pollution and climate change issues, like helping lead the effort to close Washington's last polluting coal plant.

As chair of the King County Council, a large portion of Upthegrove's work has been leading the King County Flood Control District.

"I took over the leadership of that government and we doubled our funding for salmon recovery," Upthegrove said.

"I think voters deserve a lands commissioner who not only has strong environmental values but also the relevant background and experience to put those values into action," he added.

Dave Upthegrove  

Top environmental priorities
If elected, the current county councilmember would work to protect clean air, clean water, and habitat. Another primary focus of his is to improve wildfire prevention and response, since wildfires are not only a public safety threat but also a public health one.

"I need to use my experience to come fight for the resources from the legislature for the fire department to be able to do their jobs," Upthegrove said.

Combating wildfires, Upthegrove said, is prevention, like taking care of the forests and ensuring that they're not susceptible to fires starting and rapidly spreading. This can sometimes mean thinning, clearing, and pulling out smaller trees.

"It's a cliché, but one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It is much more affordable to invest in those prevention efforts," Upthegrove said. "Natural resource agencies don't always get the attention that they deserve from the legislature, and I think the case to make for funding for wildfire prevention is getting easier, because the problem is getting worse."

Expanding recreational opportunities on public lands would create more chances for youth to engage with nature, particularly during a decade when most have had their eyes glued to their cellphones.

"I want to try to build on a program that King County already does. It's called Trailhead Direct," Upthegrove said. "King County, through our Metro bus system, provides shuttle buses from certain urban areas into the most popular trailheads, [like] Mt. Si and Tiger Mountain."

Upthegrove would like the state to fund mentoring groups working with marginalized populations in urban areas, and assist cultural organizations with programming and to expand upon the work of community-based organizations.

If elected as lands commissioner, Upthegrove would also work to expand the number of miles of trails and camping sites over time, budget and resources permitting.

"I think that's how you build the next generation of environmentalists. It's not by preaching at them. It's getting young people out in the woods, and letting them experience the beauty of nature, and it captures their imagination and brings this sense of connection to something larger than yourself," Upthegrove said.

Dave Upthegrove  

What's at stake in this election
A citizens initiative, known as I-2117, got enough signatures to challenge the state's Climate Commitment Act, which generates billions of dollars for public services and investments in natural resources and related agencies. The act is designed to reduce carbon pollution, and protect air and water quality.

"I'm the only candidate endorsed by our statewide environmental group, Washington Conservation Action, and the only candidate not accepting contributions from the timber industry, their corporate executives, and their lobbyists," Upthegrove said.

While a handful of candidates are competing for the Commissioner of Public Lands position, Upthegrove has his eye on two candidates: Jamie Herrera Beutler, a Republican who previously served in the US House of Representatives, and Sen. Kevin Van De Wege who is a conservative Democrat.

Herrera Beutler received $500 in campaign donations from William Turner, a Washington and Oregon timber manager for Sierra Pacific Industries. Turner also contributed $355 to Van De Wege's campaign. Timber harvesting, much of which occurs in the Northwest, can lead to the loss of biodiversity and have negative impacts on Indigenous and other communities who depend upon forests for their cultural practices, resources and livelihoods.

Getting involved
While donations are constantly needed — apart from those from the timber industry — those interested can visit https://Upthegrove.org to follow his social media channels and learn about the house parties and events he will be hosting and attending.

"People can send messages on the website, and it comes right to my phone if they want to volunteer, or want more information about something," Upthegrove said.