‘Willing Sellers’ sought along Dungeness River – 
Agencies work to rid river of private ownership

by Sue Forde, Editor
Citizen Review Online
for Sierra Times 

"The private ownership status of the Dungeness River channel also makes it difficult to implement habitat improvement or channel stabilization projects."
- Dungeness/Quilcene Plan

Clallam County, WA - 5/8/02 - The Dungeness River is unique in Washington State in that much of it is privately owned.  Located on the North Olympic Peninsula near Sequim, ownership runs to the middle of the river on each side.  Much of the upper river (a little over 21 miles) is located within state or federal land ownership.  The lower 10.8 miles of the river, however, has historically been held in private ownership.  The will of the environmental radicals combined with federal and state agencies is to change that in any way they can.

In 1997, the “watershed council” (which mantle the  Dungeness River Management Team [DRMT] has taken upon itself) set up a work group to “recommend restoration projects for the Dungeness River.”  Some of the statements made in their report reflect the underlying theme and desire to rid the river of private owners. One of the statements they make early on reads: ““Some work will require substantial funding, permits, property acquisition, easements or other types of agreements with willing landowners, some of which could be considered contentious.” (Read the plans for the Dungeness River here: BlueBk.pdf )

They go on to state that human activity is mostly to blame for the demise of the fish (pink and Chinook stocks of salmon are considered at “critical status” and “at risk of extinction.”  This despite the fact that the highest number of returns of these species were recorded this year than for many many years).  The “Dungeness River floodplain has been altered by many human activities including diking, bridge and road constrictions, removal of log jams and large woody debris, forest and agricultural land management, and water withdrawals,” says the working group’s report.

In another report by county employee Joel Freudenthal, humans were again placed second to fish, as a discussion of the breaching of one of the dikes which protect homeowners along the river was discussed. In his “Final Report” regarding removal of the Kinkade Island dike, he stated, “The obvious [protecting fish] benefits to increasing the flows within the channel had to be weighed against an increase in flood hazard or stability of inlet channel.”  The humans lost out in this one, as the dike was partially breached, allowing water to rush toward the shorelines, undercutting the owners’ properties.  During the recent flood in January, one home was lost entirely to the river as a result of this and the refusal to remove large woody debris along with the refusal to allow people to protect their homes from flooding with either sandbags or riprap.

Rusty and Kimberly Culp stood helplessly by as the river took their home.  

Jim and Michele Connel can no longer live in their home; the county will not allow them back into it because of the “danger” of further flooding.  

The first home in recent years to be taken by the river belonged to Glen Conley.  He lost his home to the river when the Haller Dike was breached by the county, and he was told by the county that he could not keep the concrete blocks that had protected his property for years. 

When he finally compromised with the county and removed the blocks, placing in their stead “riprap”, the river undercut his home, and he lost it.  

Downriver, three landowners lost much of their property.  Two are thinking of selling now; the third stews over the potential cost to comply with the state’s requirement for “restoration” of his property, which involves planting hundreds of trees.  

Toward the bottom of the river, at River’s End, the county applied for and received a grant to buy out the owners there, with plans for removing the 3.4 mile Corps of Army Engineers’ dike, completed in 1964 for the purpose of protecting the village of Dungeness.  (Once removed, that town will come under the flood waters again, costing private owners there their property.)  

One of the landowners at River’s End was cited in violation of the county’s critical areas ordinance, despite the fact that he proved that no harm was being done to the river, the fish or to anyone or anything.  

culp home
The Culp home as the creek began 
to rise.

flood house lost
The Culp's home sits precariously atop 
the raging creek-turned-river after the
river has eaten away the underside of the

culp house leftovers
The creek-turned-river has taken its toll.
Here's what is left of the Culp's beautiful

Kinkade Bridge
Flood waters slam against the Kinkade Island bridge after the dike was breached to 'protect the fish.'

He stands to lose his property by way of a county lien – and subsequent foreclosure on the lien – if he doesn’t comply.  A “willing seller” in the making?  

What has changed?  Many of the owners have lived on the river for years, and have been able to protect it from the ravages of flooding.  Years ago, it was not unusual to see a bulldozer in the river deepening the channel and keeping the river in its course.  Just over the past few years have peoples’ property been placed in jeopardy of loss – and some, sadly, have already lost their homes.  Why?  What has changed?

In early 1981, the Dungeness/Quilcene Plan was brought about as the result of the Chelan Agreement.    In it resides the foreshadowing of all that is currently taking place.  Although supposedly sunsetted in 1995, the D/Q Plan is back and referenced quite frequently by that same special interest group – a group that has much power over the running of the county. (Although the DRMT itself does not have enforcement powers, it does state that it has “implementation” powers – and the member agencies do have – and use – their enforcement powers – ie. State Dept. of Ecology; county Department of Community Development).

The government dictates “no removal policies”, which causes woody debris buildup in the river.  This woody debris eventually breaks loose, causing battering and destruction of dikes and property owners’ bank protection efforts.  These current practices contrast markedly from previous policies of removing all woody debris – in essence, government-implemented destruction of the habitat.  (Common sense and good environmental stewardship lies somewhere between these contrary practices.)

By removing or breaching dikes that formerly protected the private owners’ land, by leaving large woody debris in the river instead of removing it as had been done in the past, and by not allowing owners to protect their property with sandbags, riprap or any other method other than “government approved, subject to permits” ways that end up costing the property owner in both money and loss of part or all of their property, the special interest group is achieving its goal: to remove the ownership from private property owners.  A common theme is to purchase the property or easements (conservation easements, usually) from “willing sellers.”

A potential seller can become very “willing” when the county restricts them from the ability to protect their home, and in fact, increases the potential of danger to their home.  This we have seen happening, piece by piece, along the Dungeness River.

In 1997 after Glen Conley lost his home, a group of approximately 70 river owners got together and formed the Dungeness Valley Association.  It disintegrated  as a result of internal factions.

In March of this year, 23 river owners and tenants signed on to a petition to the City of Sequim demanding that the City cable the woody debris across the channel to create a log jam (natural dike of sorts) to help protect their property. Meanwhile, the City of Sequim's property was fortified by freshly poured concrete.

Dungeness River

The City of Sequim's owned property gets protection from a fresh pouring of concrete. - photo by Sue Forde

At present, the county’s resources far outweighs the resources of working folk in a battle over private property ownership.  We’ll watch as this battle continues to unfold.

Click here for more photos of the flooding Dungeness River.