Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge and the Nisqually River Watershed

  • By David Norberg
  • Posted 11/23/2018
  • Essay 20671
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Located where the Nisqually River empties into southern Puget Sound on the Pierce-Thurston county border, the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge protects the river's estuary, providing critical habitat for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway and salmon spawning in the river and its tributaries. The resource-rich river has been used by humans since the arrival of the Nisqually people thousands of years ago. Industrial development in the late 1800s and early 1900s took a toll on the environment and reached a tipping point in the 1960s when local leaders announced plans to transform the delta into a deepwater superport. The Nisqually Indian Tribe, the state Department of Game, private landowners, and environmentalists rallied to preserve the Nisqually, winning creation of the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in 1974. The battle to save the delta was just part of a larger effort to protect, and eventually restore, the entire Nisqually River watershed. The Nisqually Tribe played a central role in that work, because, as longtime tribal leader and activist Billy Frank Jr. (1931-2014) said, "The health of our Nisqually community depends on the health of the Nisqually River" (Gordon and Lembersky). The refuge was renamed to honor Frank in 2015.

Home of the Nisqually

Nisqually traditions maintain that the Tribe's ancestors migrated from the Great Basin some 10,000 years ago. Their word "Squalli" referred to the grasses found on the region's prairies and along the banks of the river. They called themselves the Squalliabsch, "The People of the Grass Country, the People of the River." They established some 14 permanent villages and developed a seasonal economy using the resources of the entire river basin.

Salmon lay at the heart of Nisqually culture, and they fished using numerous techniques. They set nets from canoes, cast hook and line, and built weirs along the Nisqually's many tributaries. Made from fir and cedar, the weirs were essentially fences that stopped fish swimming upstream, while men standing on platforms pulled salmon from the river with nets. To ensure sustainability, they periodically removed sections to allow fish to swim upstream and spawn. The Nisqually valued and revered salmon through practices like the First Fish Ceremony, in which they carefully prepared the first salmon taken from the run and returned its intact skeleton to the river with the head facing upstream.

On the prairies found throughout the basin they were able to raise and harvest a variety of foods including camas, bracken-fern roots, and acorns. Prairies formed in the wake of the last ice age, and the Nisqually, like many others, set fires to keep the encroaching forests at bay and maintain the prairie ecosystem.

Along with fishing and cultivating roots and other prairie plant foods, the Nisqually hunted game and ducks, harvested shellfish, hunted sea mammals, harvested numerous types of berries, and generally made use of all available resources. In general, they managed and modified ecosystems throughout the watershed in a sustainable fashion for thousands of years prior to the arrival of British fur traders and American farmers.

New Industries and Lost Habitat

In 1833, the British Hudson's Bay Company established Fort Nisqually by Sequalitchew Creek, near where the city of DuPont later developed. While the company entered the region in pursuit of fur, particularly beaver pelts, its leaders increasingly wanted to diversify. They established the Puget Sound Agricultural Company in 1839 and, under its control, Fort Nisqually turned to ranching. By 1846, herds of 8,000 sheep and 3,000 cows grazed on local prairies. Both the fur trade and ranching altered the environment of the watershed. Beaver build dams, creating wetlands and habitat for fish, amphibians, and birds. Those wetlands faded as beaver populations fell and dams failed. Grazing animals tore up prairies, allowing forests to take over.

American missionaries and farmers arrived shortly after the Hudson's Bay Company. John P. Richmond established a Methodist mission near the Nisqually in 1839 and longed to see the area transformed into "magnificent cities, fertile farms, and smoking manufacturies" (Hunt and Kaylor, 97). Settlers, led by George Bush (1790?-1863) and Michael Simmons (1814-1867), entered the region in 1845 intending to make Richmond's vision a reality and established farms nearby. Many, like Bush, settled on the region's prairies and put an end to Nisqually burning practices. The American population grew rapidly and, by the 1850s, new settlers wanted Native title to the land extinguished.

Territorial Governor and Superintendent of Indian Affairs Isaac Stevens (1818-1862) met with the Nisqually and other tribes of the South Puget Sound region near the mouth of the Nisqually River to establish the Medicine Creek Treaty in December 1854. The treaty required all named "tribes and bands" to "cede, relinquish, and convey" all their lands to the U.S. Government and created three reservations for them. Importantly, the treaty also recognized tribes retained "the right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds ... in common" with all other Americans ("Treaty of Medicine Creek, 1854"). Nisqually leader Leschi (1808-1858), by a number of accounts, refused to sign the treaty, and anger led to war in 1855-1856. Stevens expanded the reservations to restore peace, but Leschi was hanged following a controversial trial.

The Northern Pacific Railway brought the first transcontinental railroad to the region in 1883. Ending in Tacoma, the railroad ran along the eastern edge of the delta and brought a flood of migrants and new industries. Logging and commercial agriculture, in particular, took hold throughout the Nisqually River basin.

Logging was especially prominent in the middle-to-upper sections of the river around Elbe, Ashford, and Eatonville. Cutting alongside streams and rivers exposed them to more sunlight, raising water temperatures and making them unfit for salmon. Additionally, logging caused soil erosion and buried spawning sites.

In the same era, farmers worked to create farmland through a process known as reclamation. Many Americans saw farming as the best use of land, and they worked to drain the watershed's wetlands to make farming possible. In the Ohop Valley, Scandinavian farmers in the late 1800s dug a deep trench to straighten Ohop Creek, reduce flooding, and create dry farms. Their efforts yielded increased farming opportunities, but removed pools and logjams essential for salmon reproduction.

The most significant reclamation projects transformed the Nisqually delta. Seattle lawyer Alson Brown (1868-1942) embarked on one ambitious effort in 1904 when he bought 2,350 acres on the western bank of the Nisqually River. He quickly built a four-mile-long dike and transformed "overflow salt swamps" into fields (Jungmeyer). It took three years to leach out enough salt, but Brown persevered and gradually expanded his operations.

Brown's success attracted local fame. In 1913, an Olympia newspaper, the Washington Standard, reported that Brown raised 45,000 chickens a year, gathered 1,500 eggs a day, kept herds of 1,200 pigs, 150 milk cows, and 100 horses, farmed 800 acres, and employed 35 to 50 men. Brown's dormitories, blacksmith shop, meatpacking facilities, power plant, creamery, and industrial organization utterly impressed officials from the Northern Pacific, one of whom called it the "finest example of diversified farming" he had ever seen ("Best Diversified Farm ..."). That year, the U.S. Postal Service began the parcel post system, and Brown used it to market his goods directly to local consumers. In 1916, gushing articles in The Tacoma Times and the Washington Standard lauded his work, noted "government experts are watching his place carefully," and suggested others follow his example (Jungmeyer).

World War I brought prosperity for many American farmers, but Brown fell on hard times. In 1917, he spent $250,000 to maintain his operations but only brought in $220,000. At the same time, his investments in Austrian mining tumbled, and Brown went bankrupt in 1918. Heavily encumbered by debt, the farm, valued at $300,000 sold at auction for just $26,766.18 in 1919.

Salmon faced additional challenges as public utility departments in Tacoma and Centralia, hungry for electricity, built dams on the Nisqually. Tacoma completed the 45-foot La Grande Dam in 1912. Demand for power skyrocketed during World War II, leading Tacoma City Light to build 330-foot-tall Alder Dam. These dams provided peak power by holding water back when demand was low and releasing large volumes to produce extra power as needed. Sudden changes in flow rates devastated spawning beds and hindered migration upstream. The Centralia Light Department built a 6-foot-high diversion dam in 1929 to move water from the river into a canal and through a generating station. Salmon struggled to get past the dam and swim upriver due to the high volumes of water taken from the river's main stem, and the dam lacked screens to prevent fish swimming downstream from getting swept into the canal and killed in the powerhouse. The city added a fish ladder and screens in 1955, but the damage was done. Fish populations had fallen, and at least one run of spring Chinook had gone extinct.

Fighting to Save the Delta

Efforts to develop the Nisqually delta hit a new level in 1965, when the Ports of Olympia and Tacoma announced plans to develop a deepwater superport (an idea suggested in some form since at least the 1940s). In April 1965, the Battelle Memorial Institute presented a report to the Olympia Chamber of Commerce warning of an economic slowdown and "encouraged the Port to acquire and develop the adjoining Nisqually Delta, by diking and filling it" (Baker). Four months later, the Port of Tacoma, in cooperation with the Port of Olympia, held a public hearing on development plans but ran into a "solid wall of opposition," opening a debate that would simmer for decades (Layton, "Nisqually Port Plan Hits ...").

Officials argued the region desperately needed a deepwater facility. At the time, the largest cargo ship on Puget Sound held 110,000 deadweight tons (dwt) of grain and could not be handled by smaller ports. They pointed out that ships as large as 300,000 dwt were being built, and they expected to see massive ships of 500,000 dwt by 1980. None of the region's ports could accommodate them, and they warned the region would lose business if it did not prepare.

Port officials identified the Nisqually Delta as an ideal location. Puget Sound plunges to a depth of 200 feet off the Nisqually Flats, making a true deepwater facility possible. Additionally, the delta provided a vast area of flat land to hold cargo. That Interstate 5 and the Northern Pacific tracks ran right by the delta made the site even more desirable. E. L. "Roy" Perry (1918-2001), manager of the Port of Tacoma, commented his "eyes popped out" when he first saw the delta -- it was "a perfect place to build a deep-water super terminal" (Douglas).

Numerous groups objected to the proposal. Private landowners worried their properties would be condemned without adequate compensation. Hunters, the Nisqually Tribe, the fishing industry, the Audubon society, and environmentalists opposed "transformation of one of Puget Sound's most beautiful areas" and the harm that would do to waterfowl, fish, and numerous other species. As leading activist Margaret McKenney (d. 1969) put it, the Nisqually Delta was the "one of the last unspoiled natural areas of the Puget Sound" and needed to be saved from "oil slicks," "jetsam from ore and pulp ships," and "industrial smoke" (Contris).

Port officials argued development would have minimal effects on the environment. Port of Tacoma President Richard Smith asserted the Nisqually was "'the only remaining site on the Pacific Coast capable ... of handling the super-ships of 50 to 80 feet draft now being operated or built" (Layton, "Nisqually Flats"). He claimed the port would not need "the whole delta" and suggested development could actually "enhance recreational and conservation values" (Layton, "Nisqually Flats"). Similarly, an assistant port manager explained the project would create "one or two marinas," the river's east bank would be stabilized to "isolate any potential pollution," and improved access for recreation would increase use and "encourage funding for more effective conservation and wildlife management" (Layton, "Talk Ebbs ...").

Unconvinced, the state Department of Game bought land to slow and complicate development. In January 1966, the Olympian announced the department's purchase of 283 acres of Nisqually Delta tidelands for the creation of a "wildlife management area ... open to public hunting for ducks and other waterfowl" (Layton, "Game Gets ..."). Two years later, the department bought another 170.4 acres and built an improved boat ramp on the river. Further acquisitions followed in August 1968, March 1970, September 1970, and beyond. Newspapers reported that conflict between the Game Department and the ports would have to be settled in court.

Opposition to the port plan brought the Game Department and the Nisqually Tribe into a striking partnership. In the 1960s, members of the Nisqually Tribe along with others in the region had increasingly defied state regulation that infringed their fishing rights. The first organized fish-in on the Nisqually was held at Frank's Landing in 1964. Game Department officers swept in to arrest protesters like Billy Frank Jr., who was ultimately arrested more than 50 times. Protests continued through the 1960s and into the 1970s as the Nisqually fought for their rights, but concern for salmon populations brought the Tribe and the department together.

In 1970, they "jointly announced opposition to industrial development of the lower Nisqually River and its delta," with leaders from both describing development as "incompatible with the natural resources of fish, shellfish and game which are part of the life and heritage of the Nisqually Indians" and announcing a joint effort to build a salmon hatchery ("Fisheries, Nisquallys ...). They acknowledged differences remained "concerning Indian treaty rights," but stressed a need to work "together in matters of common interest" ("Fisheries, Nisquallys ...").

That year the port controversy reached a pivotal point and shifted in favor of environmentalists. In February 1970 the state established a Department of Ecology, and the legislature created a task force to determine if a port could coexist with a wildlife refuge. Americans across the nation observed the first Earth Day that April, and local activists Flo Brodie (1916-1992), Albert McBride (b. 1927), and Mary Walker (1917-2000) established the Nisqually Delta Association in May. They dedicated themselves to protecting the watershed, and threw themselves into a battle to stop industrial development on Hawks Prairie, west of the delta. In September Dr. Richard Slavin, director of the State Planning and Community Affairs Agency, outlined a plan for creation of "a unique national-state park" protecting the entire "glacier-to-ocean" watershed. (Fox, "Slavin Suggests ...").

Dr. Gordon Alcorn, biologist at the University of Puget Sound, and Dr. Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), then director of the Pacific Science Center and later Washington governor, headed a study for the Nisqually River Task Force. Their findings, in a November 1970 report prepared by Gary Lewis, acknowledged the delta's potential value as a port, but emphasized a port and a wildlife sanctuary could not exist side-by-side. The report outlined the value of the delta's ecological diversity, with "160 species of birds, 190 plant species, 22 varieties of mammals, and ... abundance of migratory game birds and valuable fish species," and explained that once that environment was lost, it would be "forever lost" (Alcorn, Ray, Lewis, 4). The time had come for the legislature to take "positive action" to preserve this unique place: Indecision would allow "piecemeal development," compromise the delicate estuary ecosystem, and "pre-empt any decision" in favor of preservation (Alcorn, Ray, Lewis, 4). Any effort to save the delta "without protecting the river upstream ... would be futile" (Alcorn, Ray, Lewis, 4). Ultimately, they recommended immediate action to limit access to the delta, compensate private landowners, and stop land sales for one year to allow time for a newly formed working committee to further study, evaluate, and compare possible options.

Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) quickly implemented their proposals. He also endorsed Slavin's proposed a glacier-to-sound park and called for a temporary halt to development. He insisted all plans "consider existing development" while protecting the "delicate estuary" and environments upstream. Evans emphasized the plan would protect the rights of the Nisqually Tribe and noted "the proud Nisqually heritage of stewardship towards nature" (Fox, "Evans Backs ..."). Less than a month later, John Biggs (d. 1990), director of the new Department of Ecology, announced port development would not be permitted unless exceptional circumstances demanded it.

Preservation efforts gained momentum when the legislature passed the Shoreline Management Act in 1971. The act regulates development "to prevent the inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state's shorelines" ("Shoreline Management Act"). Shortly thereafter, the state designated the Nisqually area as a shoreline of statewide significance, and the federal government gave the delta national natural landmark status.

The Nisqually River Task Force published a report, "The Nisqually Plan: From Rainier to the Sea," as a special supplement in several regional newspapers in July 1972. The 42-person task force included Gordon Alcorn, state and federal officials, and representatives from the ports, the League of Women Voters, Tahoma Audubon Society, the Nisqually Delta Association, the Nisqually Tribal Council, Burlington Northern Railroad, Boise Cascade, and Weyerhaeuser, among others. The report outlined the region's history, conflict over land use, and its environmental, commercial, and recreational value. It concluded the delta should be preserved and called on the state government to "provide whatever support is necessary" for creation of a federal wildlife refuge ("The Nisqually Plan," 12). If that failed, it urged the state to buy the delta lands. Additional recommendations called for protection of the larger watershed and efforts to develop additional recreation sites. The task force urged state officials to protect private property owners, allow continued farming and grazing on the delta, and permit logging upstream with new guidelines to protect stream banks and "fragile areas" ("The Nisqually Plan," 12). The plan strongly encouraged provisions to protect the interests of the Nisqually Tribe including construction of a fish hatchery. Lastly, it recognized the region would need a new deepwater port and called for a study to identify potential sites.

Preservationists celebrated in January 1974 when the U.S. Department of the Interior bought the former Brown farm, 1,295 acres, for $1.75 million and created the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Officials announced agreements with the U.S. Army and the Department of Game to add 1,150 acres, and hoped to purchase an additional 1,250 acres of delta land from private owners. Flo Brodie of the Nisqually Delta Association commented the "whole river basin is vital to our wildlife" and hoped the victory was just the first step toward preserving lands throughout the watershed (Bell).

Despite this success, the Nisqually Delta Association repeatedly found itself fighting to prevent development on the refuge's borders. The first prominent case began in 1976 when Weyerhaeuser bought land in DuPont and developed plans for a large export terminal. A lengthy legal battle made its way to the state supreme court where Weyerhaeuser prevailed in January 1985. To the relief of environmentalists, Weyerhaeuser abandoned the project due to changing economic conditions, but disputes with other companies continued.

Restoring the Watershed

Shortly after the refuge's creation, federal judge George Boldt (1903-1984) affirmed Native American fishing rights based on the provisions of the Medicine Creek and other regional treaties. Subsequent decisions in 1980 and 2007 determined the state government had a legal obligation to protect salmon habitat as the right to fish would be subverted if there were no fish to catch.

More protection for the Nisqually Delta came in 1985, when the legislature passed a bill ordering the Department of Ecology to form another task force and develop a comprehensive plan for the entire watershed. Legislators approved the Nisqually River Management Plan and created the Nisqually River Council to enact it in 1987.

These developments buoyed efforts by the Nisqually Tribe and environmentalists to restore habitat. The effect of dams was one early concern, leading the Nisqually Tribe to sue the cities of Centralia and Tacoma in the mid-1970s. That work brought the Tribe into cooperation with the state Department of Fisheries once again, and negotiations with both cities led to improved, mutually-agreed-upon flow rates. The Tribe reached a final settlement on flows with Tacoma City Light in 1989, and the city agreed to pay all operating costs for a new hatchery. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided funds for construction and the Tribe's Clear Creek hatchery opened in 1991.

In 1994, activists launched a new effort to protect the delta from development by buying adjoining lands, including farmland owned by Ken Braget (1932-2006). A vocal advocate for property rights, Braget opposed all efforts to condemn or buy his land throughout the port controversy and later battles. He objected to "being highlighted in their plan" and complained that "visions and dreams by the environmental sector are giving away our property rights" ("Development Pressure ..."). Nonetheless, he agreed to sell his 400-acre farm to the Nisqually Tribe for $4.25 million in May 1994.

The Tribe breached one dike on Braget's farm and restored 12 acres of tidelands in 1996. David Troutt, the Tribe's Natural Resources Director, noted the land was "going from producing cows to producing fish," and Nisqually Natural Resources Manager Georgiana Kautz felt "real excited about it" and "looked forward to creating more fish habitat in the future" (Dodge, "Farmland Given Back ..."). Final transfer of the entire farm depended on funding and, in 2000, Congress allocated funds to pay the balance owed to Braget. Six years later, the Nisqually Tribe celebrated restoration of an additional 140 acres. Billy Frank Jr., activist leader and longtime chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, acknowledged Braget's efforts to keep "this estuary pristine even though he had his farm on it" and rejoiced in the landscape "coming to life right in front of our eyes" (Andersen).

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, in partnership with the Nisqually Tribe and Ducks Unlimited, finished its own major restoration project in 2009. The roughly $13 million project removed the dike that Alson Brown built in 1904, turning 762 acres of fields back into tidelands on the old Brown farm and thereby increasing the salt-marsh habitat of the entire South Puget Sound region by 50 percent. Work to restore the delta went hand-in-hand with efforts upstream. As Salmon Recovery Program Manager Jeanette Dorner put it, "You need to protect the good habitat so you're not sliding backwards while you restore habitat" (Dodge, "Nisqually Project Helps ...").

The Nisqually Land Trust, established in 1989, worked to protect those upstream lands. With a mission to buy and protect critical lands throughout the watershed, it held 2,800 acres by 2009. Those acquisitions allowed for restoration work in the Ohop Valley, and the trust's lands combined with those of the Nisqually Tribe and other Nisqually River Council members protected some 70 percent of the river below Alder Dam.

New Name, Uncertain Future

In 2015 Congress renamed the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge in honor of Billy Frank Jr., who had died the year before. The move celebrated Frank's lifelong commitment to Native rights and the health of the Nisqually watershed. He played a central role in the fish-ins of the 1960s and 1970s, laid out a vision for restoring Nisqually salmon runs in 1977, played a critical role in developing and executing the Nisqually River Management Plan, was long recognized for his ability to build partnerships, and received numerous awards, including the Albert Schweitzer Award for Humanitarianism and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Nisqually River watershed faces an uncertain future. Development in the region continues to encroach on the river, increasing recreation puts pressure on delicate ecosystems, and the source of the river, the Nisqually Glacier on Mount Rainier, is rapidly shrinking likely due to climate change. Despite those threats the Nisqually Tribe and countless environmental activists remain committed to maintaining the health of this vibrant and historic river system.


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D-3; Bill Baker, "Gloomy Business Future Painted by Batelle," The Daily Olympian, April 15, 1965, p. 1; Mike Layton, "Tacoma Sets Sail on Nisqually Port Plan," Ibid., August 25, 1965, p. 1; Mike Layton, "It's Full Speed Ahead as Nisqually Port Plan Hits Its First Reef," Ibid., August 26, 1965, p. 1; Mike Layton, "Port Plan Stays Afloat," Ibid., September 2, 1965, p. 1; Mike Contris, "She's a Staunch Nisqually Ally," Ibid., October 6, 1965, p. 4; Mike Layton, "Game vs. Port Duel Looms for Nisqually," Ibid., October 13, 1965, p. 1; Mike Layton, "Game Gets Nisqually Go Ahead," Ibid., January 11, 1966, p. 1; "Public Recreation Acreage Growing in the Nisqually Delta," Ibid., March 18, 1968, p. 1; "Nisqually River Access," Ibid., May 29, 1968, p. 1; Mike Layton, "Nisqually Flats -- A Terminus For Enormous Ocean-Going Vessels or the Habitat for Fish and Shellfish?," Ibid., June 4, 1968, p. 6; Mike Layton, "Talk Ebbs & Flows at the Harbors & River Conference," Ibid., July 23, 1968, p. 1; "Recreation Money Set For Nisqually, Ibid., August, 1, 1968, p. 19; "Legal Point Muddies Plans for Capital Lake," Ibid., March 4, 1970, p. 7; "Nisqually Acreage Purchased by State," Ibid., September 2, 1970, p. 15; "Halt Industry Petition Is Making the Rounds," Ibid., June 19, 1970, p. 5; Clayton Fox, "Slavin Suggests Setting Aside River," Ibid., September 24, 1970, p. 1; "Fisheries, Nisquallys Hit Industry," Ibid., October 28, 1970, p. 1; Clayton Fox, "Evans Backs Delta Hiatus," Ibid., November 20, 1970, p. 1; "Biggs: No Nisqually Port," Ibid., December 3, 1970, p. 1; Clayton Fox, "Tug-o-War at Nisqually Continues," Ibid., April 6, 1971, p. 1; "Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge Created," Ibid., January 24, 1970, p. 1; "Interior Department Gets Title to Brown Farm for $1.7 Million," Ibid., March 1, 1974, p. 2; "Development Pressure Squeezes Wildlife Refuge," The Olympian, February 7, 1994, p. 1; John Dodge, "Farmland Given Back to Nisqually Delta," The Olympian, September 13, 1996, p. 1; John Dodge, "Nisqually Project Helps Reverse Decades of Decline," The Olympian, October 8, 2006 ( 

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