A Washington tribe and a timber company wrestle over a forest's future

  • A serene green pocket of forest gleams in the String of Pearls hiking trail network after an early-November rain in Port Gamble, Washington. It's part of more than 7,000 acres of former timber company land up for sale -- including a stretch of shoreline that the S'Klallam Tribe claims as ancestral homeland.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • A S'Klallam village at Point Julia stretches out toward the Pope & Talbot mill in this 1907 photograph.

    Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
  • Dawn breaks over the remains of the Port Gamble mill, background, and Point Julia, foreground, as seen from an overlook on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation in Washington. The Pope & Talbot sawmill built in 1853 on what the tribe says was their ancestral village, Teekalet.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Jon Rose at the site of the old mill at Port Gamble, the historic town his company wants to expand.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • An oily sheen shows on stormwater around refuse piles at the former mill.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • A chum salmon attempts to fight its way into a hatchery and to its eventual death on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe reservation in Washington. The S'Klallams have long caught fish from Port Gamble Bay for both eating and breeding for the next year's harvest. November is the spawning month for chum. While not the best salmon to eat in terms of flavor, the tribe offers up the corpses of slaughtered, spawned chum to families on the reservation for free.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Tribal Chairman Jeromy Sullivan at the longhouse on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation at Point Julia, Washington.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • James Jones attempts to untangle and clean a fishing net on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation in Washington. Like his father before him, Jones grew up fishing.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Blood drains from a pile of dead male chum salmon at the Port Gamble Hatchery.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Workers Ben Ives, right, and Jeff Fulton, center, whack female chum salmon on the head before gutting them for eggs for a manmade spawning. The tribal members incubate the salmon eggs with a mixture of river water and salmon semen before pumping the concoction back into the bay for the next season's generation.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Geoducks harvested from the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation. The creatures, dug by divers who swim along the bottom of the bay using rebreathers, can be worth up to $30 each, and are frequently shipped overnight to China by third-party sellers.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Hatchery jackets hang above a catch of male chum salmon on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation in Washington.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • An old fishing boat on the shores of Port Gamble Bay, where the S'Klallam Tribe has fished for centuries. The old Puget Mill stands on the opposite shore.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Piles of refuse and rusting metal populate the site of the old Port Gamble mill, originally owned by Pope & Talbot in Port Gamble, Washington. The site, which ceased formal timber operations in 1995, is behind an ongoing need for cleanup efforts now projected to cost 12 million dollars.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Historic homes now functioning as gift shops for knick knacks and other treasures populate a quiet Port Gamble neighborhood. The town, founded in 1853 as a base of operations for a timber mill, is now mainly a tourist destination during the summer months.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • Offerings and plastic crosses placed on S'Klallam graves glint in the afternoon light on the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe reservation in Washington.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • James Jones, 38, laughs with a friend while attempting to untangle and clean a fishing net in Port Gamble. Like his father before him, Jones grew up fishing.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective
  • A heavy rain breaks the surface of a murky pond within the expansive network of hiking trails of the String of Pearls outside of Port Gamble. Over 7000 acres of this timberland -- along with nearly three miles of shoreline -- is up for sale, yet the to-be owner remains undecided after years of convoluted agreements, disagreements and squabbles over true ownership rights.

    Jordan Stead /The Emerald Collective

 

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."