The Port Gamble Predicament, Part Four
Joshua Zaffos | 12/14/12

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...

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."

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


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