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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A federal agency is now completing a human health assessment, says Call, and early indications suggest that tribe members who eat bay shellfish daily may face elevated health risks. A study by the nearby Suquamish Tribe found that its members eat an average of 214 grams of fish or shellfish per day -- about a dinner-sized salmon filet -- and are consuming pollutants at levels above most public-health standards.

A mill-site cleanup has been in the works for years, with a draft plan from the state expected soon. Pope, which is on the hook for part of the bill -- the full cost is still unknown -- announced this summer that it has set aside $14 million for the effort, $12 million more than anticipated. But the S'Klallam worry that the cleanup won't be as thorough as they'd like, and that proposed Port Gamble development will make the pollution worse. New houses near the bay will bring more contaminated stormwater runoff, harming fish and shellfish habitat, including important eelgrass beds and herring spawning grounds. The possible development of large boat docks or a marina would lead to boat and floatplane traffic and likely extend shellfishing closures under state health rules.

So, when a county planning commission began considering Pope's String of Pearls proposal in 2010, tribal staff reminded local officials of their generational connection to the mill site and surrounding land. Suquamish Tribe members spoke against the plans for similar reasons. Beyond the emotional appeal, the tribes argued that the project would violate the state Growth Management Act by allowing development outside already-set boundaries. And if development closed off shellfish beds within the tribes' U&A areas, it would impinge on treaty rights. "We've been really intense with the land-use portions of (the law) with Pope and in challenging some of their efforts to increase density," says Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe. "Now is the time to fight this battle, because we've lost so much."

In addition to those arguments, the mill site -- the S'Klallams' largest concern -- wasn't included in the deal because of its outstanding environmental problems. "What we really want is to be able to harvest clams (safely) at the mill site," says Sullivan, preferably under tribal ownership.

The tribes rallied local environmentalists and responsible-planning advocates. "There was a major change in tribal members coming forward and expressing their opinions in public, and it did have an effect," says Tom Nevins, a member of the county planning commission and chair of the West Sound Conservation Council, a regional environmental coalition. By the end of the year, the alliance won over enough city and county officials to defeat the initiative. The turnaround surprised and frustrated Jon Rose, who saw himself as "the developer trying to do the right thing."

Long after settlers and government officials used land-grant laws and treaties to disperse tribes from their vast home territories, the Port Gamble S'Klallam and Suquamish tribes were doing something that their predecessors could not have imagined –– using local, state and federal rules and laws to determine how the land would -- or wouldn't -- be developed.

On a touch-and-go day of light rain and sun, I hike into the forests around Port Gamble. Tangles of sword ferns and vine maples obscure sections of the trails that crisscross Pope lands as I wander over the lush and uneven glacial terrain. It's easy to understand the place's allure, and why so many people want to protect it.

The lushness lacks diversity, explains one of my companions, executive director of the local Great Peninsula Conservancy Sandra Staples-Bortner, pointing to the surrounding Douglas firs, which are all the same size and height thanks to years of tree farming and cutting. But a mix of cedar and hemlock trees could take root as the Doug firs grow older, she adds, eventually providing a wider range of bird and wildlife habitats.

Staples-Bortner, 55, with wavy, shoulder-length brown hair and wearing the requisite light rain jacket, chairs what's known as the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project, the product of Pope Resources' most recent attempt at a conservation sale. In October 2011, the company signed an agreement with Seattle-based conservation group Forterra, which gives a coalition of governmental, environmental and recreational entities 18 months to find tens of millions of dollars to buy Pope's Kitsap County forest holdings and shorelines –– everything except the mill and town of Port Gamble. The tribes are partners in the initiative, which will protect the regional trails network. Staples-Bortner would like to see the upland woods become a community forest, where local citizens help manage the land for timber, recreation and environmental purposes. If they fail to find the money, though, Pope will sell the parcels on the open market. Then, these woods would be vulnerable to piecemeal development, and everyone will lose. The trees around us would be cut for home sites. "You'd have incredible views of Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains," Staples-Bortner says, looking west. The clock is ticking.