The Port Gamble Predicament, Part Two
Joshua Zaffos | 12/12/12

Read Part One

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...


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.

Read Part Three...

 
   

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