FRANK’S LANDING, Nisqually Indian Reservation — The first time he was arrested for fishing the Nisqually River, Billy Frank Jr. was 14 years old.
He would be arrested more than 50 times defending his tribe’s treaty right to fish, throughout the fish-ins of the 1960s and ‘70s, as Indians and their supporters at Frank’s Landing and further north, at Puyallup, were tear gassed, shot at and beat up by state and federal police.
Eventually, the tribes’ treaty right to fish was affirmed in federal court in the Boldt decision of 1974. Yet as Frank, now 81, stood on the banks at Frank’s Landing recently, his family’s nets were out of the water and the skiffs were on the grass.
For there were no fish in his tribe’s home river to catch.
Despite all the good intentions, hundreds of millions of dollars spent, lawsuits won and treaty rights affirmed in the highest courts, the battle to save the salmon and the habitat that supports them is being lost - not only here, but all over Western Washington.
In a blistering State of Our Watersheds report issued recently, the 20 treaty tribes across Western Washington, through the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which Frank Jr. chairs, documented habitat loss destroying salmon runs all over the region.
That report came on the heels of a white paper by the treaty tribes of Western Washington in 2011, Treaty Rights at Risk, that found their treaties will be but paper promises if habitat loss is not reversed.
The tribes’ reports affirm findings by both state and federal agencies. NOAA Fisheries is charged with protecting salmon and steelhead in Puget Sound under the Endangered Species Act. A report for that agency found that habitat protection is the single most important step to restoring Puget Sound chinook - and that from tree cover to eel grass, the basics that salmon need to survive are still being lost.
The most recent report, State of the Sound 2012, issued by the state Puget Sound Partnership in December, found few of the targets set by the partnership to achieve recovery of the Sound by 2020 have been met, and in critical respects, the state continues to go backward. There is less tree cover, less eel grass, more pavement, and more shoreline hardened with bulkheads and other alterations today than before Puget Sound chinook were listed for protection more than a decade ago, the report found.
There have been spectacular advances: Dikes are being ripped out of the Nisqually and Skokomish river deltas, and dams taken out of the Elwha River - habitat restorations on a grand scale costing hundreds of millions of dollars.
But it is not enough: The day-to-day losses - of trees cut and land paved; road culverts blocking fish passage; logging roads leaching silt into streams; development converting open land, especially outside of urban growth boundaries - all overwhelm the gains made to date, tribal, state and federal research all found.
That is no surprise to Frank, who says he sees a lot more process than progress.
In addition to the fish commission, he sits on the board of the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council, and has served over the years on more salmon boards and commissions and task forces than he cares to think of.
Not that long ago, Frank said, his family would have caught 200 chum on Christmas Day, and his boys would be preparing to go out fishing Sunday on the Nisqually in a season that stretched clear through winter. But this year, the chum outlook was so poor that the tribe shut the season down last week. It was the earliest closure ever.
“The state of Washington, all they know is process,” Frank said. “It’s ‘we gotta have a blue-ribbon panel, another meeting.’ You get processed out. God almighty, you never see anything coming back. What the hell?
“The directors retire and move away to Arizona and Florida and play golf, and they haven’t done a ... thing for the natural resources.”
At stake is more than fish, Frank said. For tribes, the fight for salmon is also a battle for cultural survival.
In two of the past three years, the Stillaguamish, a tribe of just 274 members in Snohomish County, have had to get fish from other tribal nations to have enough to feed those at the tribe’s First Salmon ceremony, honoring the first salmon of the year to return home.
“It goes beyond treaty rights,” said Shawn Yanity, tribal chairman. “Our identity is slowly melting away, and we are trying to keep that from happening.”
Will Stelle, Northwest regional director for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said his agency largely confirms the tribes’ findings in its reports and takes them seriously. He sees a commitment to habitat protection that needs to be extended from forestland protections, achieved through the spotted-owl wars of the 1990s, to land-use changes controlling development in the lower elevations.
“We have seen this movie before,” Stelle said. “Just as we had to wrestle with riparian issues in the higher-elevation lands in the forestlands, we have to wrestle with those same issues in the flood plains and lower elevations of Puget Sound. And we have not yet done so.
“The tribal call for significant progress in protecting and restoring habitat is deeply serious and fundamental. And it poses for us collectively here in the Puget Sound region the question of whether we are prepared to take this effort to another level.”
Tribes intend to keep up the pressure, Frank said.
“We have to fight for all the animals. The whales, the sea lions, all these things that swim. It’s important. Not just to the treaty tribes. But to everyone.”