Updated 11/30/12

The Indian chief and the timber agent meet near the shores of Port Gamble Bay. The spring air is cool and breezy along this small and sheltered nook of northwest Washington's Puget Sound. Inside the room where the two men sit side-by-side, the atmosphere is civil, yet tense, as they discuss their separate visions for the bay and forests of the Kitsap Peninsula.

One man speaks up: We have investments here and need to protect our assets and our members' interests. The other responds: We have been here a long time, and have history with the land. We've been patient with your demands. We want to protect the forests and the bay.

It sounds like a classic historical encounter between a colonial leader and a tribal chieftain. But this is not the 19th century: It's April 2012, and the man pleading for the land is Jon Rose, president of the property group of Pope Resources, a successor to the timber barons who built an empire here. By the early 1900s, the company controlled much of the forest around the bay and built a corporate fortune, displacing Native Americans from their fishing and hunting grounds. The former hub of the company's operations is a shuttered mill, built on the site of an ancestral Port Gamble S'Klallam village.

The other man, Jeromy Sullivan, is chairman of the tribe displaced from that site. The Port Gamble S'Klallam's history here reaches back more than a thousand years. Like other Northwestern tribes, they barely survived Euro-American settlement. Today, the tribe counts nearly 1,200 members, about half of whom live on a 1,700-acre reservation directly across the bay from the mill. Inside the tribal council chambers, where Rose and Sullivan are meeting at my request, Pacific Northwest Native artwork hangs on the walls in stark contrast with black-and-white photos of the mill's early days.

Pope Resources is selling off its last 7,000 acres on the northern end of the peninsula, as forestry declines and local towns become Seattle bedroom communities. The company hopes to broker a deal with conservation and recreational groups and local and tribal governments to keep most of its forests, shorelines and trails undeveloped and open to the public. It's also paying to clean up a century's worth of mill pollution in the bay, and trying to redevelop the neighboring historic company town so it can pay its own bills. "It's been a goal of mine and our company that our time on the bay ends on a positive note," Rose says, "but it's much more challenging than I ever realized."

That's because 160 years after local Indians were uprooted, the Port Gamble S'Klallam have turned the tables. Using local, state and federal laws to protect treaty rights entitling them to fish and shellfish in the bay, they have defeated development proposals, swayed negotiations on cleanup plans, and even stalled conservation opportunities that hinge on more growth. Any more development could harm the bay, Sullivan says, and the tribe must protect the fisheries that many of its members still depend on.

Their resistance is part of a larger cultural movement to halt additional losses to fishing grounds protected by federal treaties, says Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 western Washington tribes. A recent commission report notes that despite state and federal species recovery programs, projected growth around Seattle and other threats will make things worse for salmon and shellfish -- turning forests into subdivisions, and thereby increasing runoff pollution and hurting water quality.

If the company and the tribe can agree, Rose says, one of the last productive bays along Puget Sound will be protected, serving as an example for how multiple partners can save large forest landscapes in Washington. If not, then Pope has decided to simply sell its lands to the highest bidders, and the tribe may be forced to test the power of its treaty rights in court. This might be the last opportunity for the longtime rivals to establish real trust, putting history aside and crafting a common vision for this place –– one that honors its past while protecting its future.

"(Jon and I) have to find some common ground for anything to work out in a positive way," Sullivan says. "Otherwise, we're going to go back to beating our heads against a wall. We are the reason this is going to be successful or fail. We both have a lot of people counting on us."