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Know the West

A Washington tribe and a timber company wrestle over a forest's future


Updated 11/30/12

The Indian chief and the timber agent meet near the shores of Port Gamble Bay. The spring air is cool and breezy along this small and sheltered nook of northwest Washington's Puget Sound. Inside the room where the two men sit side-by-side, the atmosphere is civil, yet tense, as they discuss their separate visions for the bay and forests of the Kitsap Peninsula.

One man speaks up: We have investments here and need to protect our assets and our members' interests. The other responds: We have been here a long time, and have history with the land. We've been patient with your demands. We want to protect the forests and the bay.

It sounds like a classic historical encounter between a colonial leader and a tribal chieftain. But this is not the 19th century: It's April 2012, and the man pleading for the land is Jon Rose, president of the property group of Pope Resources, a successor to the timber barons who built an empire here. By the early 1900s, the company controlled much of the forest around the bay and built a corporate fortune, displacing Native Americans from their fishing and hunting grounds. The former hub of the company's operations is a shuttered mill, built on the site of an ancestral Port Gamble S'Klallam village.

The other man, Jeromy Sullivan, is chairman of the tribe displaced from that site. The Port Gamble S'Klallam's history here reaches back more than a thousand years. Like other Northwestern tribes, they barely survived Euro-American settlement. Today, the tribe counts nearly 1,200 members, about half of whom live on a 1,700-acre reservation directly across the bay from the mill. Inside the tribal council chambers, where Rose and Sullivan are meeting at my request, Pacific Northwest Native artwork hangs on the walls in stark contrast with black-and-white photos of the mill's early days.

Pope Resources is selling off its last 7,000 acres on the northern end of the peninsula, as forestry declines and local towns become Seattle bedroom communities. The company hopes to broker a deal with conservation and recreational groups and local and tribal governments to keep most of its forests, shorelines and trails undeveloped and open to the public. It's also paying to clean up a century's worth of mill pollution in the bay, and trying to redevelop the neighboring historic company town so it can pay its own bills. "It's been a goal of mine and our company that our time on the bay ends on a positive note," Rose says, "but it's much more challenging than I ever realized."

That's because 160 years after local Indians were uprooted, the Port Gamble S'Klallam have turned the tables. Using local, state and federal laws to protect treaty rights entitling them to fish and shellfish in the bay, they have defeated development proposals, swayed negotiations on cleanup plans, and even stalled conservation opportunities that hinge on more growth. Any more development could harm the bay, Sullivan says, and the tribe must protect the fisheries that many of its members still depend on.

Their resistance is part of a larger cultural movement to halt additional losses to fishing grounds protected by federal treaties, says Billy Frank Jr., chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which represents 20 western Washington tribes. A recent commission report notes that despite state and federal species recovery programs, projected growth around Seattle and other threats will make things worse for salmon and shellfish -- turning forests into subdivisions, and thereby increasing runoff pollution and hurting water quality.

If the company and the tribe can agree, Rose says, one of the last productive bays along Puget Sound will be protected, serving as an example for how multiple partners can save large forest landscapes in Washington. If not, then Pope has decided to simply sell its lands to the highest bidders, and the tribe may be forced to test the power of its treaty rights in court. This might be the last opportunity for the longtime rivals to establish real trust, putting history aside and crafting a common vision for this place –– one that honors its past while protecting its future.

"(Jon and I) have to find some common ground for anything to work out in a positive way," Sullivan says. "Otherwise, we're going to go back to beating our heads against a wall. We are the reason this is going to be successful or fail. We both have a lot of people counting on us."

In June 1853, William C. Talbot sailed the 50-ton schooner Julius Pringle out of San Francisco toward Puget Sound. Talbot and his partners, including his brother-in-law Andrew Jackson Pope -- both sons of Maine timber families -- were searching for a prime spot to log and mill trees for the California Gold Rush.

They found a small, protected bay off the Hood Canal, a narrow fjord along the western edge of the Kitsap, where ships could easily load logs. Thick forests of colossal Douglas firs, 12 feet across at the base and 150 feet tall, stretched miles inland from the wide beach. By the end of the year, a steam-powered sawmill was humming away.

As the story goes, company agents encountered a band of S'Klallam Indians (sometimes called Clallam or Klallam) at the mill site and eventually persuaded them to move 1,900 feet directly across the water, to a spot named Point Julia. The company promised that, in exchange, "We will build you homes from this mill and you will have jobs. (The S'Klallam) were camped on shore; there were no structures there that we can tell," says Rose, during a one-on-one interview. "It was not, 'We're sending you out at knifepoint or gunpoint.' "

Port Gamble S'Klallam leaders remember things differently, arguing that the site was an ancestral village used for centuries. Port Gamble's initial name was Teekalet --  not the actual Native name for the bay, but an English interpretation and transliteration of the S'Klallam word for the region "nəxʷq̕íyt," which roughly translates to "middle of the day place." One oral history claims that the encamped band of Indians agreed to move only after being promised Christmas and gifts. An elder told a historian that they "didn't know what Christmas was, but it sounded good." "I can't understand how it went down," says Sullivan, "but, in the end, there's a mill there, and our ancestral village was moved across the bay to Point Julia."

Whatever happened, the Pope & Talbot company founded a land empire centered at Port Gamble. The "lumber kings of the Pacific Coast," as the partners were called, acquired tens of thousands of acres -- typically 160 or 320 at a time -- through federal land grants, soldier allowances, and laws meant to speed settlement and fend off British claims to the Pacific Northwest. The cost was never more than $2.50 per acre -- equivalent to about $70 today. By 1909, Pope & Talbot owned over 42,000 acres in Kitsap County alone, including much of the upland forests and shorelines around Port Gamble Bay. Next to the mill, they built a company town of quaint wood-frame buildings that so closely resembled the founders' Maine hometown, it looked as if it had been transported across the continent.

Indian rights were an afterthought, and their land claims were addressed retroactively by treaty -- a process stacked against the tribes, who had no concept of private property. Through the 1855 Point No Point Treaty, the S'Klallam, Skokomish and Chemakum ceded rights to over 750,000 acres for $60,000 in government services, and agreed to move to a shared 3,800-acre reservation. Most of the S'Klallam eventually returned to old village sites, including Point Julia, which the federal government finally bought from Pope & Talbot in 1938 to create what is now the Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation. (Today, there are three recognized bands of S'Klallam –– at Port Gamble, Jamestown and Elwha, spread around Hood Canal and the Olympic Peninsula.)

Such treaties did, however, guarantee Indians' rights to fish at "usual and accustomed grounds … in common with all citizens of the United States." But population growth, the advent of industrial fishing and canning, dams, and other development soon depleted fisheries and shellfish stocks and destroyed habitat. In the 20th century, Washington established fishing seasons, licenses and catch limits, and game wardens began arresting Indians who didn't follow the state rules. By the 1960s, Billy Frank Jr. had become a tribal activist who was arrested more than 50 times, and he and others had elevated Indian fishing from subsistence living to civil rights action.

The scuffle landed in western Washington's U.S. District Court where, in 1974, Judge George Boldt upheld the 1850s treaties, decreeing that Indians were entitled to basically half of all of the fish in their historic harvesting areas, known as usual and accustomed, or U&A, grounds. The decision –– often compared regionally to Brown vs. Board of Education –– gave local tribes unprecedented legal clout. White fishermen staged bitter protests, hanging effigies of Boldt outside the courtroom. In the 1990s, another federal judge ruled the tribes also had rights to half of the shellfish in the U&A grounds.

The rulings made Northwest tribes co-managers with the state government of coastal resources. Today, the struggle to uphold treaty obligations includes ongoing legal challenges to ensure sustainable populations of salmon and other fish for tribes to harvest, as well as a range of restoration projects. Port Gamble S'Klallam hatchery workers spawn chum salmon eggs and raise juvenile coho salmon to sustain stocks for harvesting and recovery. They also plant millions of Manila clam seeds and have recently planted kelp beds to restore native oysters. (Other tribes are also succeeding: The Lower Elwha Klallam helped force the removal of the Elwha Dam in 2011, claiming it impeded salmon runs and violated their treaty rights.)

Meanwhile, by the 1980s, Port Gamble's halcyon days were over. Trucks and trains had replaced ships as the main transport for wood. The Navy and aerospace and technology industries had displaced timber as the region's driving economic forces. People working at Boeing and, later, Microsoft and other Seattle-area tech companies moved into growing bedroom communities, including the Kitsap Peninsula -- a roughly hour-long commute via ferry and car. Since 1970, Kitsap County's population has more than doubled to over 254,000 people. Many new residents opposed large-scale logging in the local forests. With supply dwindling, the mill closed in 1995.

In the meantime, Pope & Talbot had birthed Pope Resources to manage and protect its Washington land resources. After Pope & Talbot filed for bankruptcy in 2007, Pope Resources assumed full control of -- and liability for -- the town and mill site.

Today, the company town looks much the same as it did when it was built. Idyllic, freshly painted late Victorian-style homes and perfectly manicured lawns still line its streets. It's a national historic landmark and a popular setting for weddings. But the nearly vacant 120-acre community -- home to just 70 residents -- feels eerie enough that best-selling author Gregg Olsen set a young-adult suspense series here, opening with a paranormal, cyber-bullying murder mystery that unfolds in the "deceptively picture-perfect" environs. Other than special events and a few businesses aimed at tourists and sea kayakers, Puget Sound's last company town is a fiscal millstone for Pope Resources. As landlord, house painter, lawn mower and events planner, Pope loses $200,000 a year. Officials like to say they're the only timber company in the wedding business -- and they're ready to get out.

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.

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.

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