Chapter fifteen of “Where the Salmon Run” written by Trova Heffernan and sponsored by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.
Mount Rainier rises like a snowy giant from the Cascade Range, spreading its rugged surfaces over the foothills and one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. As climbers claw their way toward its summit, an invisible web stretches beneath, connecting every piece within its grip. From the mountain to the sea, this intricate world is linked, a concept we must understand, Billy says, if we ever hope to save the salmon. “We live along the river in these mountains, along these hundreds and hundreds of watersheds, our Indian people,” he says. “Everything that’s floating out there has got a meaning to it. Everything in this watershed is important.”
Rainier stands as the great water source of the Nisqually watershed where a delicate dance is always underway between mountain, land, river and life. “My eyes sparkle as Dad’s did, whenever I connect with that place in my heart where the Nisqually flows, timeless and sure,” Billy has said of this homeland.
Powerful cycles directed by nature never stop. Rain and snow fall from the sky, absorbed into land and feeding the rivers. Miles of fragile shoreline offer a living space for fish. Salmon, in turn, fill waterways with nutrients and feed wildlife. Salmon are an indicator species. With every mile they swim, salmon reveal the health of the watershed. Dirty water, degraded habitat, and warm water can make it impossible for the runs to survive. Even subtle changes can make the difference over time in a watershed. Fallen branches or scattered debris can alter the path of water and provide resting space for fish. Trees that line the river’s edge shade the water. Remove them and the temperature will climb. At seventy-seven degrees, salmon will die.
The fish have adapted to slow, natural change throughout history. But keeping pace with the dramatic and sometimes erratic advances of humans is something else. Sprawling urban areas and giant dams have had a staggering impact on drainage and devastated multiple species. In the late 1960s, the spring run of the Nisqually River’s chinook was extirpated.
“It’s the habitat,” Billy says. “The habitat is disappearing and has disappeared. If you looked out on that bay, it looks beautiful. But underneath is a forest—field grass, everything, it’s all gone. It’s gone by just society and overpopulation.”
Here, in an ultimate act of teamwork, Billy and a host of organizations are trying to turn back the clock across 720 square miles of watershed. They secured agreements with land users and at the same time proposed a hatchery, a place where additional fish could be propagated and reared to satisfy demand. “The Nisqually was the only large stream in Puget Sound that didn’t have a hatchery,” explains George Walter, an anthropologist and longtime employee at the Nisqually Tribe. “Rates for fishing for chinook and coho were pegged to harvest hatchery fish. Our natural fish swimming with them were harvested at a high rate. At least in those days, the only way to get Chinook back in decent numbers to our fishery was to have a hatchery.”
You couldn’t find a better spot for the hatchery Billy and Walter proposed. Clear Creek, the small tributary to the Nisqually River, is flush with springs and strong flows. Old maple and cedar trees surround the stream, shading and cooling the water. Salmon could thrive at its temperature, an ideal fifty degrees in winter and fifty-two degrees in summer. Its half-mile course is a short trek for fish migrating to the Nisqually.
But obstacles stood in the way. The country was mired in the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, and the small tributary cut across a swath of Fort Lewis, the 87,000-acre military base near Tacoma. It was all once Nisqually land, of course. But in 1917, because of World War I, the bulk of the reservation was condemned so that a military base could be built. The Nisqually people were forced from their homes, and Clear Creek has flowed across military land ever since. “Fort Lewis immediately said no,” Walter recalls. “We couldn’t possibly have a hatchery here; it would interfere with training.”
“I had to fight my way back up into getting that hatchery,” Billy says of wading through red tape. Doors shut. “The Pentagon in Washington, D.C., wouldn’t talk to me anymore. Nobody would talk to me.”
Billy and Walter tapped a burly congressman from Bremerton. Since 1976, sixth district voters have been sending Norm Dicks to Congress. His booming voice and gregarious manner have made him an institution. Dicks held a seat on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Environment.
Billy made the case for a hatchery to Dicks and Dan Evans, then a U.S. senator. Both men contacted the Pentagon, and the $650,000 feasibility study for a potential hatchery site slid through Congress.
Although the Clear Creek location won the endorsement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as expected, Billy and Walter met more resistance from the military. They asked for reasons in writing and responded to each concern. Still, the military refused to budge. To move the army, Billy took some of his own advice. When Joe Kalama, Billy’s cousin, was a young up-and-comer, Billy used to tell him to order oatmeal three times a week, dress so he’s not shaming the tribe, and leave every negotiation with a chip in your pocket, a card you could play later.
In negotiations over the proposed hatchery, Billy leveraged two properties with questionable ownership within the boundaries of the military base. When the Nisqually Reservation was condemned, the land was divided into thirty allotments and held in trust by the U.S. government for individual Indians. But two properties could not be included in those proceedings. One was Nisqually Lake; the other was a cemetery. “Willie Frank Sr. deeded the one-acre cemetery to the United States in trust for the Nisqually tribe,” explains Walter. “In other words, the title to this one acre was held by the U.S. and thus could not be condemned in state court, without the explicit agreement of the U.S. and with the U.S. being a party to the proceedings. And, the U.S. was not a party to the condemnation.
“Nisqually Lake was considered a navigable water body when the reservation was allotted,” Walter continues. “Therefore, all of the allottees’ deeds included a description that ended the property at the edge of the lake. The lake and its bed were not allotted, and therefore remained tribal/community property, again held in trust by the U.S.”
The ownership was unclear, says Walter, but the U.S. Army was still using the area for training. “They were shooting over the reservation from Rainier,” Billy adds. “You could hear the rounds go over. Every now and then, a round would be short and land on the reservation. And one landed right up where the casino is right now. I’m telling these guys, ‘We’re going to stop all this. This is political.’”
Billy met again with Dicks and played his hand. “I own two titles to that property over there. I’m going to ask the federal judge to stop all the impact at the firing range and everything.”
Considering that the sitting federal judge at the time was Jack Tanner, the militant African American who had represented the “renegades” during the fish wars, a settlement undoubtedly appealed to Fort Lewis. “This one acre and Nisqually Lake are both right in the middle of where the ownership of the United States and of the Army was ambiguous,” explains Walter. “The very idea that the tribe might make an issue of the two pieces of property forced a quiet settlement.”
“You own those two pieces of land?” Dicks asked.
“Yeah, got the title for them.”
The tribe and the U.S. Army struck a deal: “We wanted to put the hatchery in,” Billy remembers, “and we wanted the federal government to build that hatchery.” The army wanted the two pieces of property.
The proposal arrived at the chairman’s desk at the Military Construction Subcommittee in Congress. Ron Dellums, a liberal anti-war African American congressman from Berkeley had taken his seat in Congress six years earlier than Dicks.
“Are you telling me that you want me to take land from the United States Army at Fort Lewis and give it to the Nisqually Indians?”
“Right on, brother!”
“It was helpful to find something that they could say that [the U.S. Army] got. And they reduced a risk for some adverse judgment,” Walter says. “The two pieces of property that they did not have clear title to would have been a shoe horn potentially.”
The federal government paid more than $11 million for a stateof- the-art facility at Clear Creek. Tacoma Public Utilities pays for hatchery operations, as part of a settlement for damaging the Indian fishery on the Nisqually River.
On a ninety-nine-year lease, the unlikely pairing has coexisted. “In the middle of the night, rangers will infiltrate the hatchery and hop the fence and basically capture the building,” Walter says. “There’s nobody there.”
The hatchery opened with great fanfare in 1991 and instantly drove harvest numbers up. Out of four million fish released annually, the Indian harvest jumped from roughly two thousand to as many as twenty thousand. Billy’s three-part plan to clean up the watershed— bring the fish back, clean up the river, build a hatchery—was coming to fruition.
Thanks to the Clear Creek hatchery, the Nisqually culture is alive. Like their ancestors, Indians can still fish the river. In fact, the hatchery is billed as the most successful chinook hatchery in Puget Sound, says David Troutt, director of Natural Resources for the Nisqually Tribe. Without it, he says, the tribe would never meet its harvest goals.
Yet it is only the first step, Troutt cautions. Modern science is leading hatchery managers closer to nature as biologists confront a powerful truth: the most advanced technology and the largest harvests of hatchery fish cannot possibly compensate for the absence of habitat and be sustainable through generations. Salmon, hatchery or wild, depend on a healthy environment to survive. Cool water, clean gravel, and strong flow are vital. In a white paper distributed by treaty tribes in 2011, Billy and the tribes opine that by restricting harvest, the federal government has glossed over the source of the real problem, habitat loss and degradation:
An example is the Nisqually River, with its headwaters in a national park and its mouth in a national wildlife refuge. It is one watershed in Puget Sound where we have made significant habitat gains in recent years. More than 85 percent of lower river estuary habitat has been reclaimed through cooperative federal, tribal, and state work to remove dikes; nearly 75 percent of mainstream river habitat is in permanent stewardship.
Despite this massive cooperative effort, research shows that young esa-listed salmon and steelhead from the Nisqually River die before they can reach Seattle, just 30 miles away. The main cause is believed to be a lack of nearshore habitat caused by ongoing development practices.
In the years that followed the opening of the hatchery, Congress paid for an independent group of scientists to study the state’s entire hatchery system. Experts urged a major facelift. Among its more than a thousand recommendations, scientists underscored the need to view hatcheries as an addition to habitat, not a replacement. “The old model was, we figure out how many fish we want to catch, and we’ll build hatcheries that will produce the fish that will go out and be caught,” said Barbara Cairns, executive director of Long Live the Kings, which oversaw the project. “We need to stop thinking about hatcheries as factories that produce fish, and start thinking about them as tributaries of the watershed in which they reside.”
In Salmon Without Rivers, author and biologist Jim Lichatowich takes it a step further, acknowledging that humans have not only failed to recognize the importance of the whole picture but have tried to manufacture elements that can only be created by the forces of nature:
Fundamentally, the salmon’s decline has been the consequence of a vision based on flawed assumptions and unchallenged myths—a vision that has guided the relationship between salmon and humans for the past 150 years. We assumed we could control the biological productivity of salmon and “improve” upon natural processes that we didn’t even try to understand. . . . The natural limits of ecosystems seemed irrelevant because people believed they could circumvent them through technology. . . . Since the turn of the twentieth century, the natural productivity of salmon in Oregon, Washington, California, and Idaho has declined by 80 percent as riverine habitat has been destroyed. To confront this loss, we need a different vision, a different story to guide the relationship between salmon and humans.
Hatcheries have brought much-needed stability to runs, but can in no way replace wild fish. Years of producing salmon in artificial conditions have created a lesser fish, one that is hand-fed and not as adept at clearing natural barriers. When fish return to Clear Creek, for example, humans, rather than nature, choose which female fish will procreate. Humans strip the eggs and mix them with sperm in a bucket, before incubating them, securing them in troughs, and releasing them to the wilds of the ocean. The result, says Troutt, is a simpler fish and a less diverse run.
To keep pace with this new way of thinking, Clear Creek will now carefully combine some of its hatchery fish with wild salmon to create a more natural species in the runs it artificially propagates. These salmon will depend even more on a healthy watershed to survive, from the summit of Mount Rainer to the depths of waterways.