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Know the West

‘Port Gamble Predicament’ inches toward resolution


Last winter, I reported on the tangle of cultural and conservation challenges surrounding western Washington’s Port Gamble Bay, documenting how the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is in the final stages of a 160-year-long faceoff with Pope Resources. Pope is the corporate stepchild of a logging company that built a mill town called Port Gamble in the mid-19th century on a site that S’Klallam oral histories claim as an ancestral tribal village. Over time, the S’Klallam settled onto lands directly across the bay from the mill town, where they now have their reservation.

Pope still holds 6,700 acres of land on the surrounding Kitsap Peninsula, including bay shorelines and forests. Ready to move its operations elsewhere, it gave community conservation partners -- a coalition called the Kitsap Forest & Bay Project made up of state and local conservation groups, county interests, and the S’Klallam and the Suquamish tribes -- until this March to show they could buy the land, which is used by local hikers and which Pope has suggested it could subdivide for new homes.

Now, it appears the conservation effort is advancing. At the end of March, the partners announced they had met conditions to extend the purchase agreement with Pope and would keep fundraising through March 2014. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is also in early discussions with Pope about directly buying 1,780 acres adjacent to its reservation. Still, a hiccup in a plan to clean up Pope’s historic mill pollution in the bay may have cost the Forest & Bay Project some major funds.

In wrapping up negotiations with the Washington Department of Ecology, Pope balked at removing two old docks. It viewed the structures as leverage for gaining approval to build a new pier at Port Gamble, the company’s quaint, nearly vacant historic town, which it hopes to redevelop and sell off. Tim Nord, the state’s cleanup manager, says Pope’s stance threatened the cleanup by leaving behind the contaminated structures while inserting its development struggles into the discussions.

In late March, Pope relented somewhat, agreeing to terms for a $17 million cleanup. The  program will remove 2,000 creosote-treated pilings and 80,000 cubic yards of contaminated wood waste and sediment from the bay, and cover remaining debris with 4 feet of sand. The company has until 2015 to remove the old docks while working toward a permit for a new pier. Jon Rose, president of the company’s property group, says the new agreement is a “monumental achievement,” although Pope will be challenging how much of the recovery costs it should be responsible for.

But because Pope objected to some of the costs identified in the agreement, some state restoration funds for the Forest & Bay Project are in limbo. In 2012, the Washington Legislature set aside $9 million for Port Gamble land purchases and cleanup. Now, only about $4 million are guaranteed to purchase a portion of shoreline and to replace the town’s sewage outfall into the bay with a septic system.

“We’re excited that they’re coming to a cleanup agreement,” says Jeromy Sullivan, Port Gamble S’Klallam chairman. But the tribe had hoped for a more extensive cleanup and the additional land-acquisition funds to ensure they can harvest bay fish and shellfish for subsistence and commercial purposes without worrying about the possible longterm health effects of pollution from historic and future development. “We feel it’s unfortunate that they couldn’t do the bigger deal.”

State lawmakers may decide whether to reallocate the money this spring, and the decision will likely influence the scale of community conservation efforts. The up-in-the-air funds represent over 40 percent of the $12 million the Kitsap Forest & Bay Project has generated to buy the Pope lands. Rose admits that the standoff over the docks “certainly had an impact” on the status of the state money, “but I don’t think it put any of the funds in jeopardy.” Still, he adds, “these dollars will be challenging for the community to replace.”

Pope also held a public meeting in mid-March to hear comments on its Port Gamble development plans, which received a generally warm response from attendees. The company’s preferred proposal includes 196 new houses and a shoreline commercial area around the mill town, while part of the site could be protected as open space. Acounty planning process and environmental assessment will unfold over the next year. The S’Klallam and Suquamish tribes have met Pope’s past proposals with claims that the growth would harm the bay’s resources, and Sullivan says the latest proposal is “more of the same.” Both have suggested that they may resort to their historic treaty rights to the bay’s fisheries to scuttle Pope’s plans.

But though the Suquamish and Port Gamble S’Klallam tribes are united against development, they’re sorting through their own rivalry. Stirred by my HCN story’s focus on the S’Klallam, Suquamish chairman Leonard Forsman wrote an essay this February, emphasizing his tribe’s historical use and occupancy of the bay. Forsman, who I interviewed and quoted in my article, writes that the S’Klallam neglect the Suquamish people’s “ancient territorial presence” and “overstate their (own) aboriginal presence in the area." He also questions the S’Klallam claim of an ancestral tribal village at the mill site.

“We feel like we have called this place home from time immemorial and we haven’t seen anything to say otherwise,” responds Sullivan. “There are some things that we may not agree on, but there are some things that we definitely agree on, like this area that the Port Gamble S’Klallam have called home since pre-contact was used by many tribes, including (other bands of) Klallam, Twana, Suquamish. Like getting a good cleanup done. There’s a lot more that we can work together on, and that should be our goal.”

Joshua Zaffos is a regular contributor to High Country News. Image of sunrise near Port Gamble over the bay, courtesy Flickr user Blue~Canoe.