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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Jon Rose discovered Port Gamble in the late 1980s. Raised in Connecticut, Rose, a civil-engineering graduate from the University of Vermont, moved to Washington for a job and was feeling homesick. When he saw the mill coughing out smoke, and the pitched-roof architecture of the houses, general store and church, he felt the place was a "slice of New England." Several years later, he landed a job with Pope Resources.

As more people have moved to the peninsula, Pope -- still the largest landowner in Kitsap County -- has converted some of its former timberlands into suburban neighborhoods, business parks and shopping areas. It has also brokered several conservation sales and easements on over 20,000 acres in Washington since 2008 to protect habitat and water resources. At the same time, Pope is buying up forests in rural southern Washington and Oregon, where logging is more viable and the lands serve as long-term investments. It's part of a larger trend: The state's private forests have changed ownership at a staggering pace in recent decades, as timber companies have sold off forestlands for development and the timber market has eroded.

In 2007, Pope announced it would sell off about 7,000 acres in northern Kitsap County, including 3,300 acres of contiguous forest and two miles of undeveloped bay shoreline. The project -- and the fate of the company town -- fell to Jon Rose.

Rose, 50 with graying hair and a booming voice, is easy to talk to. For a land-development executive, he uses the words "dude" and "friggin' " a lot, and he proudly retains his acerbic Northeastern wit, joking: "Nobody this rude comes from the Northwest."

Rose saw an opportunity to preserve the company's local legacy, while still earning money for its shareholders. Even though the county had given him permission to zone thousands of acres into 20-acre lots, Rose proposed selling the intact parcels for conservation instead. Lacking development value, however, the land would have to be sold at a lower price. Therefore Pope would cluster 1,300 new homes on 1,000 acres in and around Port Gamble -- enough growth so the town could survive without company patronage. The plan would protect and extend the popular trail network through the Pope lands, connecting historic towns around the northern end of the peninsula.

Rose rolled out his concept, the "String of Pearls," at a June 2007 community meeting that drew 530 people -- "like Woodstock for this area," he says. Citizens embraced the idea, and business leaders discussed a burgeoning recreation economy, attracting weekend cyclists, hikers, runners, active retirees and other outdoor enthusiasts wanting to get away from Seattle.

"My vision is to have this area turn into a destination," says Linda Berry-Maraist, a city council member in nearby Poulsbo and a leader of the North Kitsap Trails Association, who was among the local government officials who initially endorsed the vision. At the Poulsbohemian coffeehouse, she says the String of Pearls seemed like a "phenomenal" way to accomplish that.

Rose assumed the Port Gamble S'Klallam and the Suquamish tribe, which has its own reservation on the peninsula, would support the deal, too, since it would protect huge stretches of forest and shoreline. "We thought the (S'Klallam) tribe would love that there was no development near the reservation," he says. "We miscalculated."

Last year, before the non-Native fishing season opened, Jeromy Sullivan took his 9-year-old son to Point No Point, the northern tip of the peninsula where his tribe signed the 1855 treaty. The boy landed a 6-pound coho salmon. As Sullivan marked the catch on his subsistence card –– modern treaty rules allow each member to take an established number or weight of fish and shellfish per day from their U&A grounds –– an onlooker began aggressively questioning him. He "really gave us a hard time," says Sullivan, who has spiky black hair and looks much younger than his 38 years. Sullivan willingly showed his tribal identification and subsistence card, but even then, "he was cussing at me in front of my kid, really mad that we were stealing all the fish. It was one fish that was feeding my family. We're not stealing anything; we're practicing our treaty right."

It's a sadly familiar scene: Despite the Boldt decision, Indians are still sometimes harassed about their fishing rights. And Sullivan's family has long been involved in struggles to defend those rights. His mother, Diana Purser, a former Port Gamble S'Klallam tribal council member, was among hundreds of Natives who were handcuffed or tear-gassed at the tribes' U&A areas and lost fishing gear to state officials. She still laughs about selling fireworks to raise defense funds.

Under her watch, Sullivan grew up harvesting horse clams, oysters and geoduck -- giant saltwater clams -- in Port Gamble Bay. He remembers fishing for sockeye salmon on her small gillnetting boat, dodging freight ships in open waters. When he isn't handling tribal affairs, Sullivan is among about 50 commercial harvesters of geoduck during a three-month spring season. These days, the work requires scuba certification, and harvesters spend up to two hours underwater using high-pressure water wands to dig up the clams. His family still collects oysters and cockles from the beach for dinner once or twice a week.

Tribe members say, "When the tide is out, the table is set." Birthdays and other social events usually involve building a clam pit -- a layered pile of cockles, clams, oysters and crab, steamed over a low fire. Chinook, chum and coho salmon and steelhead trout, including federally designated threatened runs, also swim into the bay at different life stages, but anglers keep only hatchery fish, identifiable by their clipped fins. The Port Gamble herring population is a vital food source for salmon and even orcas, and the bay is one of the last in Puget Sound still open for commercial and domestic shellfish harvesting.

About 200 tribal members work in commercial fishing each year, but Sullivan says few make a full living through the work, since prices and demand have dropped even as some stocks are increasing due to regional recovery measures.

The mill, however, remains a source of pollution. Hundreds of thousands of tons of scrapped woody debris and 3,000 creosote-coated pilings smother the bay's floor, sucking oxygen out of the water as they decay, and harming shellfish beds and aquatic habitat, says Roma Call, the tribe's environmental coordinator. The sediment contains considerable levels of cancer-causing hydrocarbons, dioxins and metals. When the state Department of Ecology dredged just one acre of the bay in 2003, the stirred-up sediment forced the closure of subsistence and commercial shellfish harvesting along the western shore, which is still in effect. Another nearby geoduck bed is also closed due to wastewater pollution from a sewer outfall.