How Can We Save Habitat for Endangered Species?
For generations, the tribes in southern Puget Sound have fished along the Nisqually River. Their leader, Billy Frank Jr., has spent a lifetime protesting for Native American rights. Decades ago, as a young man, Frank was thrown in jail more than 50 times, even shot at by game wardens as he fought for the Indians’ fair share of the devastated salmon catch.
For decades, almost every man-made development had ravaged the wild salmon. Dams and culverts blocked their passage upstream to spawning grounds. Logging destroyed trees and bushes, whose shade kept the river cool for salmon. Cattle fouled the waters with their dung. Farmers diked in tidal wetlands where juvenile salmon need to grow. Everyone overfished the precious King Salmon.
In 1974, a decision by Federal District Judge George Boldt created a sea change for the tribes. In an historic ruling, Boldt ruled Native Americans were entitled to half of the salmon catch -- ten times their previous allotment. Plus Boldt gave them power to co-manage the local fisheries and watersheds with the state of Washington. That gave Billy Frank a shot of momentum and new responsibilities for protecting his cherished watershed.
Still, in the 1970s, the runs of salmon continued to nose dive. King salmon were wiped out. To try to recover the rivershed, the state legislature set up the Nisqually River Task Force in the mid-80s to bring together all local stakeholders.
But the issues were thorny and the parties clashed. Large economic interests like Weyerhaeuser Timber, Wilcox Farms, Tacoma Power, and the Army's Fort Lewis feared being forced to change. The tribe and environmentalists wanted natural buffers along the Nisqually's banks to protect the river and the salmon – a zone with no logging, no clearing, no cows.
The task force was deadlocked for months. One rancorous night, Billy Frank rose to speak. “I’ll never forget this,” recalls farmer Jim Wilcox. “Billy 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.”
People listened. Tempers subsided. The deadlock thawed. Frank asked them all to work together to save their river. He suggested a compromise on the buffers. Cooperation began to blossom. The Army base offered a site for a tribal fish hatchery. Tacoma Power provided funds to run it. But the key for Billy Frank was recovering wetlands from farmers to nurture the baby salmon.
Successes were slow, but stunning. Today, 70 percent of the Nisqually corridor is permanently protected. Salmon are on the rebound. “The eagles, the habitat, the beavers are coming back,” says Billy Frank. “The little animals that lived on this watershed, they’re coming back. You know, these are very important life on the estuary and the ecosystem of a watershed.”
Background Essay Written by Hedrick Smith.