Chapter Thirteen of “Where the Salmon Run” written by Trova Heffernan and sponsored by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed.
Chapter Fourteen | The Negotiator
The Negotiator The 1980s found the United States and Canada in an icy cold war over salmon. Rivals seethed at the thought of compromise. Billy played the role of consensus builder with the longest of odds. A treaty between the two countries “is only as good as people want it to be,” Billy said. “It is a one-time-only opportunity to rebuild the fish resource.” Friend George Walter scribbled down Billy’s approach:
1. Look for answers that don’t cost a lot of money. You’ll never have much.
2. Understand the art of negotiation. Respect your adversaries enough to look for answers they can actually support.
3. Bring people together. (Alternatives usually involve buckets of money, even more time and someone in a black robe giving orders.)
4. Avoid hitting people over the head with a stick, regardless of any temporary gratification. The outcome is almost never positive.
“We could have gone down a track that was totally involving antagonism, fighting and everybody running up their attorneys bills,” Walter says. “Billy advocated approaching things in the working together, drawing consensus arena. And that’s really the only thing that ultimately works.” The approach served Billy well through a series of historic settlements that marked the mid-1980s.
The Evergreen State is extolled worldwide for its thick blankets of trees, its pristine and roaring rivers, and the jewel Billy characterizes as the golden egg, the Pacific salmon.
“Can you name another icon?” asks Bill Wilkerson, former head of the Department of Fisheries. “I can’t name one. Washington is identified with it, and it’s still a big industry.” Consequences of no salmon, or fewer salmon, run deep. “There are parts of Puget Sound that would be hugely affected economically,” Wilkerson says. “Bellingham is a good example, where there’s a huge fleet. Seattle. People don’t realize how important that marine fleet is to the Seattle economy. Ballard. It used to be Ballard exclusively, and down there at Fishermen’s Terminal, it’s still one of the biggest terminals in the world.”
Washington chinook and coho were generating big dollars, but too much of the money lined the pockets of Alaskans and Canadians who intercepted the fish during their long migration north. “Many of the Chinook salmon produced on Grays Harbor find their fate in the nets of Alaskans and Canadians,” noted the Aberdeen Daily World. “So many, in fact, that there has not been a season specifically for Chinook on Grays Harbor in five years. The Alaskans jealously guard their share, while the Canadians won’t budge until the Alaskans make some concessions, and the Washingtonians say their countrymen to the north better face facts. The energy that various user groups have wasted squabbling amongst themselves strikes us as a latter-day tragedy of the commons, with little for the common good.”
Energized by breakthrough sessions at Port Ludlow in 1984, Billy and Wilkerson remained hopeful as the United States and Canada stood on the brink of an historic pact to thaw a cold war twenty years on. An accord could control interception. “It was our stocks that migrated up the coast into Alaska and then back down through Canada and Alaska, particularly our chinook and coho,” Wilkerson explains. “We hated it. Our fish were being intercepted in both fisheries.”
But the spirit of cooperation had yet to travel north. “We have been waiting twenty years for a U.S.-Canada Treaty,” Billy grumbled. “Somebody has got to make sense out of protecting this resource!”
With a $400 million fishery along the West Coast at stake, drafted agreements between the two countries collapsed. Talk of a salmon war spread. The runs would never recover, biologists warned. After all, in eighteen years, Native spawning grounds lost 80 percent of their returning chinook. “What brought it home to me,” says Jim Waldo, an attorney and facilitator in the post-Boldt era, “were the statistics from one day in 1976, when 750,000 salmon were caught by Americans and Canadians in the Fraser River. It’s obvious that no fishery could long withstand that kind of pressure.”
A truce, however, was a complex proposition at best, layered with emotions and politics. Salmon that originate in Washington rivers are indeed swept up on the high seas by Alaskans, Canadians, the Japanese, and the Russians. But interception works multiple ways. Washington fishermen can also intercept another host country’s salmon, and do.
Unbeknownst to the fish, as they travel beneath the surface of the water, they pass through a tangled political web of jurisdictions. Charles Wilkinson, a longtime professor of Indian law, was so struck by the jurisdictional hopscotch that he took up the issue with the Committee on Indian Affairs of the United States Senate.
Today, salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest is a patchwork quilt of many dozens of Federal and State statutes, tribal and international treaties, and county and city land use plans and regulations. Once in writing an article about the Columbia River, I found that a Chinook salmon born in the Lochsa River in Idaho would have to pass in its life’s journey 8 dams on the Columbia, 16 passages in all out and back. And that the Chinook, in its return journey as an adult harvestable fish, would pass through no fewer than 17 separate Federal, tribal, State and international jurisdictions. Thankfully, Sammy, as I affectionately came to call my imaginary salmon, did not need a separate passport for each jurisdiction.”
“And we had no treaty,” sums up Bill Wilkerson. From the state of Washington, the pact was in the hands of Wilkerson, Billy, Tim Wapato, head of the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission, and Levi George, a Yakama, among others. “I can remember talking to Billy and Tim one night and saying, ‘We’re going to have to get more political about this thing.’ We had a treaty agreement that fell apart, I think, in ‘83,” Wilkerson recalls. “None of us were talking to each other, so we didn’t know why. We didn’t have each other’s perspective. We were relying on the tribes to push the conservation arguments; we were pushing the allocation arguments. But there was no coordinated effort whatsoever. Wapato agreed to provide the staff to form this coalition, and he was dead serious about it. Fish weren’t getting back to the Columbia. Internally, we were avoiding the litigation, we were campaigning like crazy about why what we were doing was right.”
“Judges and lawyers haven’t gotten us a damn fish!” an energetic Billy told the tribes. Wilkerson remembers Billy’s speeches. “He had a few doozies. I would always get him, ‘Well, I thought you did number 305 particularly well and effectively today.’ I mean, it was all exaggeration, and he would laugh about it.”
But Billy kept the tribes at the table, Wilkerson says. “He was the tribal leader. The Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission was kind of the focal group, and the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission that Tim Wapato ran. They were the two quote ‘management entities’ for the tribes.
“He always knew the right time to give one of his speeches,” Wilkerson recalls. “He was so respected in the Canadian delegation because they had a tribal delegation. He was Billy Frank to those people, one of the top tribal leaders in North America. . . . It happened pretty fast once we had the president of the United States and the Canadian prime minister saying, ‘Get it done.’”
A marathon negotiating session at a hotel in Vancouver, British Columbia, capped a long and frustrating process. In March 1985, President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, signed the highly anticipated Pacific Salmon Treaty, ending, at least temporarily, the fishing feud between the United States and Canada. “The president really did want something tangible to take with him to Canada,” said Slade Gorton, at that time a U.S. senator, of the treaty’s expedited route through Congress.
“This is the best deal possible for all sides given the state of the industry and the resource,” declared Garnet Jones, Canada’s top negotiator. “This gives us the ability to truly manage stocks on a coast-wide basis.”
The deal was made with three guiding principles: minimize interceptions, minimize disruptions of existing fisheries, and manage the fishery to conserve stock. The newly formed Pacific Salmon Commission that would navigate issues consisted of eight members, four from each country. Among its provisions, the treaty reduced the fish harvest in Canadian and Alaskan waters by roughly 25 percent. “Everybody gives a little,” said then-U.S. Senator Dan Evans. Not everybody was satisfied. “To make this treaty happen, Alaska bled,” said Earl Krygler, a delegate from the Alaska Trollers Association.
Politics can intervene, even for an optimist like Billy. The elder has a long history with the Nisqually Tribe. Over the years, he held various positions including vice chairman, council member, and fisheries manager. Then, in 1985, there was a falling out. “[The tribe] cut my funding,” Billy recalls. “But I’ve got a bigger picture in my mind.” The NWIFC reorganized in 1985, allowing Billy to be elected as chairman at large.
Billy’s positive attitude helped secure an agreement with the timber industry in the mid-1980s. For all the importance of forest products to the Washington economy and American life—an industry association assessed that “on average each American uses three pounds of wood products per day”—the timber industry wreaked havoc on salmon habitat. Felled trees muddied rivers and stole shade salmon need to thrive. Thinking they were assisting salmon on the path of their migration, timber crews were required to remove logs from streams and rivers. But the effort backfired. The removal disturbed gravel beds and spawning places for the fish.
The tribes pushed for more protection of streams through buffer zones, selected areas that would remain off limits to logging and farming. Billy struck up a friendship with Stu Bledsoe, the man at the helm of the Washington Forest Protection Association (wfpa). Stu liked Billy. Billy still played tough. “They were drawn into the room by Billy’s organizing the state’s largest tribes and the Alaskan Native corporations to threaten withdrawal of money from the banks in Washington State if they continued to oppose Indian rights and management goals in relating to timber, water, wildlife,” says Hank Adams. Communication was key. But the boundaries were clear.
Bledsoe, a former legislator and familiar figure in agriculture circles, continued to be impressed by the Nisqually Indian. “He was very confident that he could trust Billy, and he wasn’t sure about me,” Wilkerson laughs. “Billy and Stu had a really rock solid relationship. I was the least solid, because I knew him the least. So, Billy I would call him truly the glue on that one.”
Billy also worked toward a compromise with Joe DeLaCruz. As chairman of the Quinault Indian Nation, DeLaCruz valued both timber and fish. With a vested interest in timber harvest, however, he opposed exceptionally restrictive practices in the industry. “He and Billy sat down,” Wilkerson recalls. “They were negotiating with each other about what was OK and what wasn’t OK. Those two guys closed the deal from the tribal standpoint, Billy and Joe. Billy accepted the fact that we would be the regulator, but wanted to be at the table.”
In July 1986, again at Port Ludlow, representatives of the timber industry, tribes, environmentalists, and governmental agencies found middle ground. Six months and sixty meetings later, the Timber, Fish and Wildlife Agreement was announced on February 17, 1987. The new pact over the use of Washington’s tree-covered landscape struck a balance among competing interests and spurred an historic shift in how Washington managed its natural resources.
In assessing Billy’s contribution to the negotiations, Wilkerson says, “He’s made himself a credible spokesperson for the resource and I can’t tell you what value that has. He’s the guy that’s been there the whole time. He’s been through all of it. I saw him lighten the load in the room a lot of times. And everybody knew they were dealing with a leader, but they also knew that they were dealing with a great character. I personally think great characters are really . . . hard to find, great characters that really influence things are even rarer I think. And he is one of those.
“I think he wanted to protect those fish,” Wilkerson continues. “He wanted respect for the tribes. He genuinely likes people. He’s one of the greatest politicians I’ve ever known, truly, because he knows that, face-to-face, he’s a retail politician. He’s great at it. I don’t know that he knew that about himself, but I know he knows it today.”
In hindsight, Billy says he helped introduce a culture of long-range thinkers: “Us Indians are gatherers. We’re harvesters. That’s our life. We want the farmer and the timber industry to be like us, and they have been. The farmer is a neighbor of ours who thinks out a hundred years. And the timber industry, the growth of trees are one hundred, two hundred years. We want that mindset, that you sustain the life of the salmon, sustain the life of the shellfish, of the water. Sustain all of those trees up there and all of the farmers. If the farmers disappear, the guy that’s building the houses will be there. And he’ll take that land.”
All was not well in the Nisqually watershed, however. Forest land that borders the Nisqually River had evolved into a minefield with a volatile history. Environmentalists had battled the Weyerhaeuser Company over a proposed log-loading port near the wildlife refuge. (Despite Weyerhaeuser’s court victory, the logging market diminished before the plan could be realized.) Tribes were urging buffers at the river’s edge—no farming, no logging—while farmers and loggers strived to protect their livelihood. The tribes proposed a strict plan for land use, but timber interests concluded, “The river is healthy, so leave it alone.” It looked like everybody was ready for an absolute shootout,” says Stu Bledsoe. “Everybody had their armor on.” The state formed the Nisqually River Task Force and tasked the group with finding common ground to protect the largest stream that drops into Puget Sound.
In an old barn, Billy and 19 others handpicked by the state, sat at the front of a U-shaped table. The room held a mix of interests: tribes, businesses, arms, Fort Lewis, as well as the power and timber industries.
Jim Wilcox, who was anxious about his 1909 family farm, remembers one “particularly stormy session,” when tempers rose. “I’ll never forget the night. Billy Frank got up. He said, ‘We’ve got to stop this right now. I want everybody to know that we want Weyerhaeuser Timber Company to continue to operate and own the land along the river. We want Wilcox Farms to keep farming. We don’t want to do anything that’s going to put them out of business.’”
“I told people condemning the people’s land is not a good thing and the Nisqually Tribe doesn’t want to be part of that,” Billy adds.
Billy’s declaration eased tension. Following his lead, the task force moved forward with a protection plan that required no new laws or regulations. Wetlands were recovered to nurture fry and a compromise was reached on buffers. “Basically, the landowners said, ‘Come to us and tell us what’s wrong and we’ll show you an existing regulation that covers it,’” says Milt Martin with the state Department of Ecology. As a result, Wilcox recycles manure that is generated near the river to keep the water free of the waste. The tribes and Wilcox cleared a beaver dam together to make way for the salmon. As of 2012, roughly 75 percent of the delicate shoreline that runs from Tacoma Public Utilities’ LaGrande Dam to the mouth of the Nisqually River is protected, more than seven times the protected acreage in 1977.
In August 1989, the healing continued. Federally recognized Indians tribes and the state of Washington secured a Centennial Accord, to find mutual solutions and recognize Native sovereignty.
For all Billy’s willingness to negotiate, his tough stand on treaty rights remained. The tribes did not and will not abandon the salmon, says Wilkerson, ever: “The biggest war that they fought since statehood is the Boldt Decision. They’re never going to walk away from all that emanated from it, including co-management.”
Next: Clear Creek Hatchery