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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So far, the state Legislature has authorized $7 million to buy the shoreline parcel with its high fish and wildlife value and $2 million more to help manage septic pollution along the bay. The Port Gamble S'Klallam are leveraging $3.5 million from the Navy, compensation for the expansion of an explosives-handling wharf in Hood Canal that affects their treaty rights. Grants and funds could bring close to another $5 million, including federal dollars to acquire an area to expand a county park. But money for the 3,300-acre tree farm and other forest parcels –– over 70 percent of the lands for sale –– has been hard to find, so partners hope to spread around the funds aimed at shoreline protection. If the land deal falls through, the $9 million from the state disappears. Meanwhile, Rose has suggested a total price of "less than $70 million" to buy the entire 7,000 acres. An appraisal is pending.

But Pope is making other concessions. With the development proposal severed from the conservation deal, this summer, Rose presented a revised plan to build just 466 homes in and around Port Gamble –– maybe only 266 if the project partners can buy all the Pope lands. That wouldn't require any changes to the area's density rules. There would also be a hotel, new waterfront trails, an orchard, a winery and a dock, which, Rose says, is designed to avoid state health closures of fisheries. Once the cleanup plan is set, the company town could go up for sale, too.

Still, the relationship between tribe and company has gotten thornier, and several months after Sullivan and Rose first met with me, their dialogue has stalled. Sullivan has said the S'Klallam can accept the modified plans, but the tribe continues to raise concerns about -- and obstacles to -- shoreline development. This October, the county held public meetings to update the shoreline management plan, mandated under state law. The tribe and its supporters objected that proposed changes aligning the shoreline rules with other county land-use plans would basically green-light Pope's redevelopment. "The tribe is willing to allow some small development" -- like a single new building and small dock -- "if it doesn't have any impact on the bay," says Call, noting that any growth or increase in boat traffic could still trigger health closures of fishing grounds. "It sets the course for a long time into the future."

Besides, Sullivan wonders, why would the state and the company spend millions to clean up the bay if they're going to turn it into a boat-traffic zone? "It doesn't make sense."

Rose says the cleanup plan has never precluded future development, and he disputes that the company is trying to sneak land-use changes by the tribes or the public. He also points out that the S'Klallam barely consulted with the community when it expanded its casino last year. Pope officials and others have suggested the tribe can solve the problem by purchasing the mill site outright –– something Sullivan says is not financially feasible. Others oppose any such transaction, fearing the tribe would turn the site into another casino or hotel. That, Sullivan insists, is an unfounded assumption.

On the other hand, Sullivan says he and past tribal chairs have asked Pope Resources to simply give the land back, since the company has already extracted an enormous amount of value from it. Company officials, including Rose, respond that Pope is a publicly owned company, and such action would expose it to shareholder lawsuits, and could even land executives in jail.

Besides, Rose says, some historical records portray the mill site as an Indian summer camp and shared tribal territory, rather than an important ancestral village site. "But when you're in front of a planning commission, their version of history works really well. It's really a great way to leave the facts on the page and touch people's sentiment."

On a cold and drizzly afternoon, I stand on the windy beach at Point Julia and watch Ben Ives Sr. and Jeff Fulton dig clams. The two Port Gamble S'Klallam members work at the tribal fish hatchery, but today they're collecting shellfish for their own families. Subsistence rules are no joke; neither man will let me handle a shovel or hold a bucket because it's illegal. Fulton, clean-shaven, wearing eyeglasses and sweatpants, uses a short-tined rake to collect small Manila clams. Ives, who wears thick lambchop sideburns that connect with his mustache and jeans tucked into rubber boots, digs for larger horse clams -- his daughter's favorite.

Ives, 59, has been harvesting shellfish and salmon from the bay since his parents and uncles first taught him. At age 18, he ran a crane at the Pope & Talbot mill, stacking timber along the log boom, a barrier of pilings that collects floating logs. A stone's throw across the water from where he bends to dig, the deserted mill and pilings punctuate the shoreline -- a painful reminder of all that eludes the tribe despite its efforts to sway Pope's exit strategy.

The progress of the Kitsap Forest and Bay Project means significant pieces of land and shoreline will likely be preserved. But without a breakthrough in negotiations with Pope, the tribe could one day be compelled to test the full strength of its treaty rights in order to repel new development at Port Gamble. Because they come from federal treaties, though, they're difficult to directly invoke against a project unless it requires a federal permit.

In 2011, the S'Klallam delayed Pope's previous dock plans through an objection to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues federal construction permits under the Clean Water Act. Once the tribe raised concerns about pollution and habitat loss to U&A areas, the Army Corps declined to issue a permit. Should the agency approve Pope's more recent dock proposal, the tribe could opt to sue the federal government for a "breach of trust" on its treaty obligations. That happened in 1988, when the Suquamish and Muckleshoot sued several parties over a Seattle marina construction and forced an injunction to scale back the project. But for the most part, both developers and tribes have avoided federal court. They all have too much to lose if a treaty-rights judgment goes against them.

The Port Gamble predicament is a history lesson in action, and if there's much to lose, there's much to be gained, too. For all the progress that tribes have made, the S'Klallam still depend somewhat on Pope's goodwill. And despite its legacy of local power, Pope cannot make a clean break without the tribe's cooperation. "It's fine, but never easy," says Jon Rose. "Almost like marriage."

This reporting was supported by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and contributors to the High Country News Research Fund.

Joshua Zaffos lives in Fort Collins, Color., and has been writing for the magazine since 2002. His work is online at joshuazaffos.com