The Port Gamble Predicament, Part Three
Joshua Zaffos | 12/13/12

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...

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.

Read Part Four...

Joshua Zaffos lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has been writing for the magazine since 2002. His work is online at joshuazaffos.com  This feature story originally appeared in the November 26, 2012 issue of High Country News (hcn.org).

 
   

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