Suburban sprawl hits tribal land

Washington's Tulalip tribes face a reservation 'full of strangers'

  • Map of Tulalip Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain

MARYSVILLE, Wash. - It's a typical Friday evening on Interstate 5 about 30 miles north of Seattle. Under a heavy mist, traffic crawls north toward the bedroom communities that spread across the farms and forests of this once-rural area.

Just off the freeway, outside Debbie Posey's window, a steady stream of commuters winds its way along Marine View Drive, into the heart of the Tulalip Indian Reservation, heading home to one of the many subdivisions springing up in and around the reservation.

Posey, who has lived on the reservation most of her life, is frustrated by the changes taking place around her.

"Not so long ago, you could pass Indians on the road and wave hello, but now there are so many non-Indians on the reservation that the roads are full of strangers," says Posey. She believes that increasing development puts the reservation's small-town way of life and Tulalip tribal values at risk. "People must realize that the land is about more than just money."

The Puget Sound region's high-speed economy has sparked interest in the Tulalips' slice of largely undeveloped forest and shoreline, located just minutes from the region's busiest highway.

The Tulalip Tribes have long taken a hands-off attitude toward development. But recently, the tribes have grown rich from casino revenue. In 1996, the tribes' growing economic muscle, coupled with tremendous development pressure, inspired them to approach adjacent Snohomish County over long-standing land-use issues.

After three years of dialogue and negotiation, the county and tribes reached a precedent-setting agreement to protect the green heart of the reservation. While Posey and some other tribal members feel the deal allows too much development, county and tribal leaders say it's an example of a successful partnership between tribes and a local government.

Beyond conflict

The Tulalip Reservation covers 22,000 acres of thick Douglas fir forest, cool streams and quiet shoreline. It's home to over 9,000 people, about 2,000 of them members of the Tulalip Tribes. Like many reservations, the Tulalip is a patchwork of land: Some is held in trust for the tribes by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, some is owned by individual tribal members, and some is owned by non-Indians.

This complex ownership pattern has created conflicts between Snohomish County and the tribes over development of reservation land, particularly land owned by individual tribal members. As nearby Seattle sprawls, and housing demands increase, these disagreements have multiplied. Projects are under way for several housing subdivisions, a hotel, two golf courses and a large business park.

In 1994, the Tulalip Tribes completed a comprehensive plan for land use on the reservation, striving to protect the watershed for the tribes' salmon hatchery and sensitive coastal areas. At the same time, in response to Washington's Growth Management Act, Snohomish County prepared its own comprehensive plan and zoning regulations, calling for greater development on parts of the reservation. The two sets of regulations were directly in conflict.

Larry Springer, the county's manager of housing and community development, notes that past relationships between the county and tribes have been less than friendly; the parties have exchanged threats of litigation more than once. This time, they sought to resolve their differences through negotiation, searching for common ground on issues of growth and tribal sovereignty. Springer and other county officials, along with tribal leaders, gathered monthly for three years around a breakfast table on the reservation.

Tribal member John McCoy, the tribes' government affairs director, remembers the feeling of apprehension at the first meeting. "As a tribe we have tended to keep things close to the chest," says McCoy. "But land use is a volatile subject, and both sides felt it had to be dealt with."

The negotiations ultimately culminated in 1999, when the Snohomish County Council adopted a set of development regulations that largely eliminated the conflicts between the county and tribal comprehensive plans and zoning regulations. Now, development of nearly half the reservation is limited; in some places, only one home per 20 acres is allowed. The county and the tribes also agreed to trade information about building permits; developers now seek input from both parties on development proposals.

Even so, Debbie Posey believes the tribe is still giving up too much land.

"Regardless of the agreement, we should not have allowed the development that has happened, and we should not be allowing the development that's going on," she says. "A reservation is just that - a reservation for our people."

Economic muscle

Tribal leaders say the agreement is working. The tribal council has currently placed a moratorium on all new growth on the reservation, until the tribe can iron out a wastewater plan. According to Tulalip community development director Barrett Schmanska, the agreement has encouraged the county to respect the moratorium on non-tribal land.

"The negotiated agreement has done a fantastic job in limiting the development on the reservation," he says. "The moratorium adds another layer of complication to the mix, giving the tribe more time to plan for the future."

Although some tribal members remain suspicious of any growth, the majority of Tulalips have accepted these changes, says John McCoy. "If we want to grow, not only as a community but also economically, we must work with surrounding communities," he says.

The Tulalips are not alone in their attempts to deal with growth. Across the West, tribes are struggling for control over land-use issues on property that abuts reservation acreage. Alan Parker, a Chippewa-Cree Indian and director of Evergreen State College's Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute in Olympia, Wash., says jurisdictional growth disputes have triggered legal action on several reservations. But the complexity of federal, state and treaty law has produced mixed outcomes for the tribes.

"Lawsuits are really a roll of the dice," notes Parker. "With all of the legal uncertainty, the best way to resolve disputes is through negotiation, not litigation."

The rising economic power of tribes, particularly from casino revenue, is also giving them a more comfortable seat at the negotiating table.

"Economic development has really opened a lot of eyes of people who never thought Indians would do anything," says Nora Helton, president of the Intertribal Council of Arizona Corporations. "In many cases, tribes have become economic players and have gained the respect of local governments.

Dave Wortman is a freelance writer in Seattle, Wash.


  • Barrett Schmanska, Tulalip tribal community development director, 360/651-4027;
  • Larry Springer, Snohomish County, manager of housing and community development (425/388-3311); [email protected];
  • Alan Parker, Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute (360/867-6889), [email protected].

Copyright 2001 HCN and Dave Wortman

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