Nisqually River Watershed Is Model of Cooperation, Action

John Dodge The Olympian Online


Washington State - The Nisqually River watershed is the center of the known universe.

If you don't believe me, just ask Nisqually tribal leader Billy Frank Jr., who has spent much of his adult life trying to keep his people on the land and the salmon coming back to the river.

And if you don't believe Billy, pay heed to what happened in Tacoma this week at a two-day conference that revolved around Puget Sound salmon recovery efforts and ways to get chinook salmon removed from the federal Endangered Species Act list.

In part, the conference was a natural resources love-in centered on the Nisqually River watershed, albeit not as lively as it would have been if Frank had been there as scheduled.

The American Indian version of the Energizer Bunny missed the conference, recovering from a bout with pneumonia.

Time and again, the 1987 Nisqually River Management Plan approved by the state Legislature, and the dozens of past and present Nisqually River Council members who have breathed life into it since, were singled out as shining examples of how to make watershed planning work.

The mostly voluntary plan built on neighborly trust and compromise allows everyone from farmers to Fort Lewis military brass to Nisqually tribal members to forge ahead with ambitious plans to restore salmon habitat, protect the river corridor, train troops, harvest trees and engage in other seemingly incompatible activities.

"I wish we had more examples like this," said Bill Ruckelshaus, who is using his considerable business and political connections in a grand experiment to recover salmon stocks, watershed by watershed, throughout Puget Sound.

Lest you forget, Ruckelshaus was the first administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, former Weyerhaeuser Co. executive and key player in the successful 1997 Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations between the United States and Canada.

He also gained notoriety on the national political scene Oct. 23, 1973. That's the Saturday night he received a call from President Richard Nixon, ousting Ruckelshaus from the No. 2 job in the U.S. Justice Department. The reason? Ruckelshaus and his boss, Attorney General Elliot Richardson, refused to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was insisting that Nixon release the politically explosive White House tapes. It went down in history as the Saturday Night Massacre.

Ruckelshaus shies away from the label of state salmon czar, but that's what folks engaged in salmon recovery are calling him these days.

Shared Strategy for Puget Sound, the nonprofit brainchild of Ruckelshaus, exists on the premise that Puget Sound chinook and other imperiled species won't be restored to healthy numbers through regulations meted out by federal and state bureaucrats.

Rather, the theory goes, it will take local citizens, landowners, scientists, tribes, government officials, business interests and salmon advocates working together in Puget Sound's 15 watersheds.

When Ruckelshaus says the Nisqually River watershed is the model for cooperation and action, people listen.

It began with a bill introduced in 1985 by then-Rep. Jennifer Belcher, D-Olympia, creating a Nisqually River Task Force to craft a management plan to protect the natural, cultural and economic resources of the river basin.

To many, the Nisqually watershed was, and is, a crown jewel, blessed with a national park at its headwaters and a national refuge 78 miles downstream where the river empties into Puget Sound.

Belcher was surely persistent. As an aide in the early 1970s to then-Gov. Dan Evans, she and others in the Evans administration promoted a plan to manage the entire 761-square-mile river basin as one ecological unit, from mighty Mount Rainier to the sea. It imploded in political controversy, but out of the ashes of that plan, conservationists and others convinced the federal government to buy the old Brown Farm at the Nisqually River Delta and create the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Much of the private property owner distrust that accompanied the 1970s plan was rekindled by the 1985 task force.

I recall covering a task force meeting in October 1985 in the Brown Farm Twin Barns, which served as the refuge's education center until the February 2001 Nisqually Earthquake rendered them a safety hazard.

Some 75 river valley residents were on hand to give the task force an education on private property rights. Keep your hands off our land, their message resonated through the musty barn.

Jim Wilcox, chairman of the 1,700-acre Wilcox Farm near Roy, was one of the ringleaders of the private property rights group.

On Wednesday, Wilcox was at the salmon conference, talking about those tumultuous times and the transformation he eventually went through.

"There was a lot of anxiety about the plan," he recalled. "We were hearing talk of trails along the river from the mountain to Puget Sound or some sort of meganational park."

He later changed his tune, spending more time and energy quieting down fellow landowners than he did stirring them up.

What happened? A couple of things.

"Billy Frank Jr. was singularly the most calming influence," Wilcox said. "He kept saying: 'We want Wilcox Farm to keep farming, and we want Weyerhaeuser to keep their forest tracts.' "

"That was a real turning point," Wilcox said.

In addition, the task force quickly eliminated condemnation of private land as an option in whatever was to happen.

In the end, the management plan crafted was long on voluntary action and short on new regulations.

By steering a centrist course, the 19-member river council, which meets once a month, can point to dozens of accomplishments both large and small during the past 15 years.

Today, 56 of 84 river miles in the Nisqually basin are permanently protected from development. A large part of the protection is afforded by Fort Lewis, where the Army has learned over time how to train soldiers without mucking up the river.

In addition, the nonprofit Nisqually River Basin Land Trust, formed by the river council, has placed some 645 acres off limits to development.

The Nisqually Indian tribe has been entrusted as the lead entity for salmon recovery in the watershed.

Each of the past four years, the tribe has passed some 1,100 adult hatchery chinook upstream to spawn in a bid to slowly build back up naturally spawning stocks that were wiped out by hatchery production, habitat loss and overharvest years ago.

The number of naturally spawning fish could climb to 3,600 a year in decades ahead, tribal Natural Resources Director David Troutt said.

The numbers may go up or down, depending on the pace of salmon habitat gains in the watershed.

Other achievements include a vibrant salmon education program in schools, signs to let people know they are entering and leaving the Nisqually River basin and more public access to the river.

Especially significant is a project on delta farmland purchased by the tribe where dikes have been removed to convert pastureland into a salmon-rearing, saltwater marsh.

A day before the Tacoma salmon conference, Secretary of Interior Gale Norton visited the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge for a photo op and chance to promote the Bush administration's 2004 Interior budget, which includes an infusion of $260,000 for Nisqually refuge fence and building projects.

She saw the lands the tribe has restored for the sake of salmon.

Perhaps the images of the lower Nisqually River watershed and an imposing Mount Rainier in the background will come in handy in the years ahead when the refuge managers ask their boss for money to turn pasture into estuaries, too.

And, for the record, Ruckelshaus told me he didn't know Norton was paying a visit to the center of the known universe.

But I think he was glad she did.

John Dodge is a senior reporter and Sunday columnist for The Olympian. He can be reached at 360-754-5444 or

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