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
 

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In June 1853, William C. Talbot sailed the 50-ton schooner Julius Pringle out of San Francisco toward Puget Sound. Talbot and his partners, including his brother-in-law Andrew Jackson Pope -- both sons of Maine timber families -- were searching for a prime spot to log and mill trees for the California Gold Rush.

They found a small, protected bay off the Hood Canal, a narrow fjord along the western edge of the Kitsap, where ships could easily load logs. Thick forests of colossal Douglas firs, 12 feet across at the base and 150 feet tall, stretched miles inland from the wide beach. By the end of the year, a steam-powered sawmill was humming away.

As the story goes, company agents encountered a band of S'Klallam Indians (sometimes called Clallam or Klallam) at the mill site and eventually persuaded them to move 1,900 feet directly across the water, to a spot named Point Julia. The company promised that, in exchange, "We will build you homes from this mill and you will have jobs. (The S'Klallam) were camped on shore; there were no structures there that we can tell," says Rose, during a one-on-one interview. "It was not, 'We're sending you out at knifepoint or gunpoint.' "

Port Gamble S'Klallam leaders remember things differently, arguing that the site was an ancestral village used for centuries. Port Gamble's initial name was Teekalet --  not the actual Native name for the bay, but an English interpretation and transliteration of the S'Klallam word for the region "nəxʷq̕íyt," which roughly translates to "middle of the day place." One oral history claims that the encamped band of Indians agreed to move only after being promised Christmas and gifts. An elder told a historian that they "didn't know what Christmas was, but it sounded good." "I can't understand how it went down," says Sullivan, "but, in the end, there's a mill there, and our ancestral village was moved across the bay to Point Julia."

Whatever happened, the Pope & Talbot company founded a land empire centered at Port Gamble. The "lumber kings of the Pacific Coast," as the partners were called, acquired tens of thousands of acres -- typically 160 or 320 at a time -- through federal land grants, soldier allowances, and laws meant to speed settlement and fend off British claims to the Pacific Northwest. The cost was never more than $2.50 per acre -- equivalent to about $70 today. By 1909, Pope & Talbot owned over 42,000 acres in Kitsap County alone, including much of the upland forests and shorelines around Port Gamble Bay. Next to the mill, they built a company town of quaint wood-frame buildings that so closely resembled the founders' Maine hometown, it looked as if it had been transported across the continent.

Indian rights were an afterthought, and their land claims were addressed retroactively by treaty -- a process stacked against the tribes, who had no concept of private property. Through the 1855 Point No Point Treaty, the S'Klallam, Skokomish and Chemakum ceded rights to over 750,000 acres for $60,000 in government services, and agreed to move to a shared 3,800-acre reservation. Most of the S'Klallam eventually returned to old village sites, including Point Julia, which the federal government finally bought from Pope & Talbot in 1938 to create what is now the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation. (Today, there are three recognized bands of S'Klallam –– at Port Gamble, Jamestown and Elwha, spread around Hood Canal and the Olympic Peninsula.)

Such treaties did, however, guarantee Indians' rights to fish at "usual and accustomed grounds … in common with all citizens of the United States." But population growth, the advent of industrial fishing and canning, dams, and other development soon depleted fisheries and shellfish stocks and destroyed habitat. In the 20th century, Washington established fishing seasons, licenses and catch limits, and game wardens began arresting Indians who didn't follow the state rules. By the 1960s, Billy Frank Jr. had become a tribal activist who was arrested more than 50 times, and he and others had elevated Indian fishing from subsistence living to civil rights action.

The scuffle landed in western Washington's U.S. District Court where, in 1974, Judge George Boldt upheld the 1850s treaties, decreeing that Indians were entitled to basically half of all of the fish in their historic harvesting areas, known as usual and accustomed, or U&A, grounds. The decision –– often compared regionally to Brown vs. Board of Education –– gave local tribes unprecedented legal clout. White fishermen staged bitter protests, hanging effigies of Boldt outside the courtroom. In the 1990s, another federal judge ruled the tribes also had rights to half of the shellfish in the U&A grounds.

The rulings made Northwest tribes co-managers with the state government of coastal resources. Today, the struggle to uphold treaty obligations includes ongoing legal challenges to ensure sustainable populations of salmon and other fish for tribes to harvest, as well as a range of restoration projects. Port Gamble S'Klallam hatchery workers spawn chum salmon eggs and raise juvenile coho salmon to sustain stocks for harvesting and recovery. They also plant millions of Manila clam seeds and have recently planted kelp beds to restore native oysters. (Other tribes are also succeeding: The Lower Elwha Klallam helped force the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2011, claiming it impeded salmon runs and violated their treaty rights.)

Meanwhile, by the 1980s, Port Gamble's halcyon days were over. Trucks and trains had replaced ships as the main transport for wood. The Navy and aerospace and technology industries had displaced timber as the region's driving economic forces. People working at Boeing and, later, Microsoft and other Seattle-area tech companies moved into growing bedroom communities, including the Kitsap Peninsula -- a roughly hour-long commute via ferry and car. Since 1970, Kitsap County's population has more than doubled to over 254,000 people. Many new residents opposed large-scale logging in the local forests. With supply dwindling, the mill closed in 1995.

In the meantime, Pope & Talbot had birthed Pope Resources to manage and protect its Washington land resources. After Pope & Talbot filed for bankruptcy in 2007, Pope Resources assumed full control of -- and liability for -- the town and mill site.

Today, the company town looks much the same as it did when it was built. Idyllic, freshly painted late Victorian-style homes and perfectly manicured lawns still line its streets. It's a national historic landmark and a popular setting for weddings. But the nearly vacant 120-acre community -- home to just 70 residents -- feels eerie enough that best-selling author Gregg Olsen set a young-adult suspense series here, opening with a paranormal, cyber-bullying murder mystery that unfolds in the "deceptively picture-perfect" environs. Other than special events and a few businesses aimed at tourists and sea kayakers, Puget Sound's last company town is a fiscal millstone for Pope Resources. As landlord, house painter, lawn mower and events planner, Pope loses $200,000 a year. Officials like to say they're the only timber company in the wedding business -- and they're ready to get out.