Nisqually Delta Association

  • By Elise Fogel
  • Posted 9/27/2011
  • Essay 9927
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The Nisqually Delta Association, founded in 1970, is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and protection of the Nisqually River Delta, located 10 miles northeast of Olympia on Puget Sound. Members have consisted of conservationists and environmentally minded citizens of the area, and they emphasize community participation and educating citizens to make informed decisions. Nisqually Delta Association members contributed to the creation of the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge in 1974, an important step that began their struggle to protect the watershed from development. In the 1970s and 1980s the group led a drawn-out legal battle against the Weyerhaeuser Company over its plan to build an export facility on the east side of the delta. In 1994 association members negotiated an agreement with Lone Star Northwest regarding its proposed gravel exporting facility, persuading Lone Star to move its dock 1.5 miles north of the proposed site to Tatsolo Point.

The Nisqually Delta 

At the south end of Puget Sound, 10 miles north of Olympia and just south of DuPont, the Nisqually River fans out across a flat field creating an ecologically rich salt-water marsh that hosts 220 bird species, 56 mammal species, 19 fish species, and 10 amphibian and reptile species throughout the year. The pure waters of the Nisqually River originate at the Nisqually Glacier in Mount Rainier National Park, then meanders through farmland before passing under I-5 and mixing with the salt water of Puget Sound and forming this unique environment for many wildlife species, the only significant resting place for migrating birds between the Skagit River and the Columbia River. Over the years, humans have also been attracted to the economic promise of this land. The salt marsh was drained with a system of dikes in 1904 to make way for a dairy farm, and it became a point of interest for people with industrial interests.

Farmers practiced agriculture at the mouth of the Nisqually beginning in the early twentieth century, relying on a system of dikes to keep out salt water. By the 1960s, the farms were faltering and there were a number of parties interested in taking advantage of the Nisqually Delta. In 1964 the City of Seattle considered setting up a solid waste landfill at the Nisqually Delta and in 1965 the Port of Tacoma explored the option of building a dock for supertankers and bulk cargo carriers there. In 1967, the Port of Olympia explored building an aluminum plant on the Thurston County side of the Nisqually Delta. Margaret McKenny (1885-1969), an early and well-respected conservationist from Olympia, founded a group called Washington Citizens Committee for Outdoor Resources to help defeat these projects and protect the delta. McKenny died a year before the creation of the Nisqually Delta Association, but her actions, particularly mentoring Flo Brodie (1916-1992), directly led to its creation.

Nisqually Delta Association

On May 1, 1970, the Nisqually Delta Association was founded as a Washington state non-profit organization. The initial board of directors comprised Flo Brodie of Olympia, Albert McBride (b. 1927) of Olympia, and Mary I. Walker (b. 1917) of Seattle. The group’s original goal was to protect the entirety of the river basin, from its glacial source on Mt. Rainier to the estuary at Puget Sound.

The 1978 Amendment to Articles of Incorporation stated the Nisqually Delta Association's dedication to an environment with minimal human intervention:

“This corporation is formed for the purpose of protecting and preserving the natural character of the Nisqually River Basin and adjacent environs in perpetuity, and to diminish the intensity, extent and adverse character of human activity thereon” (Amendment, 1978).

Shoreline Management Act

The Washington State Shoreline Management Act (SMA), which members of the Nisqually Delta Association helped lobby for, passed in 1971. The act protected the shorelines of Washington state from specific human activities, and specifically indicated a stretch of the Nisqually Delta from DeWolf Bight to Tatsolo Point as a “Shoreline of Statewide Significance.” The designation includes wetlands along these shorelines, minimally 200 feet inland from the high-water mark. The act emphasized the importance of these shorelines to all state residents and called for prioritizing statewide interest over solely local use.

Local government became required to institute a planning and permitting system to strictly regulate activities on the shoreline. (However, the requirements were not always enforced.) As a result of the act, the City of DuPont had to rewrite the Nisqually region Master Plan, a draft of which was approved by the Department of Ecology in 1975. In this plan -- proof that regulation was not always effective -- the Dupont Company shoreline, just east of the Nisqually Delta, remained an urban zone.

In 1971 the United States Department of the Interior declared the Nisqually Delta a National Landmark, and in 1972 the Washington State Legislature passed a bill to create a National Wildlife Refuge. The Brown Farm land, consisting of 1,290 acres, was purchased in 1974 for $1,750,000 and marked the official beginning of the refuge.

That same year, Al Wiedemann at the Evergreen State College organized a group of students to conduct a study on the Nisqually Delta, called the Nisqually Delta Group. At this time, the western part of the delta was split between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Washington State Department of Game. The Braget Family owned and operated the eastern portion as a farm. Flo Brodie, president of the Nisqually Delta Association, assisted the students with their research. Part of the association's strategy to protect the delta was to encourage studies of the area. Dr. Gordon Alcorn at the University of Puget Sound produced another such study.

The Weyerhaeuser Fight

In the 1970s and 1980s, the group led a drawn-out legal battle against the Weyerhaeuser Company over its plan to build a log-export facility on the north side of the delta. That legal battle went on for most of a decade, and ended with a divided court deciding to permit a dock, but with conditions that would ultimately cause the dock not to be built. This struggle began in 1976 when Weyerhaeuser paid $12 million to Dupont de Nemours & Co for 3,200 acres just north of the Nisqually Delta that had been used since 1909 for manufacturing explosives. This land was zoned for industrial use and had been annexed by the City of DuPont in 1971.

Weyerhaeuser revealed a plan to build a lumber-export facility on this parcel, including a 250-acre facility with a 1,320-foot-by-140-foot dock. When the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was released, the Nisqually Delta Association came out in strong opposition to the plan for a number of reasons, namely, that it was too close to the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge; that it was incompatible with local, state and national laws, including the Shoreline Management Act; and that it would disturb land that was historically significant as a burial ground for local Indian tribes. The association was also concerned about the work that this private port would take away from Washington’s existing public ports. Studies showed that public ports could handle the demand for lumber shipping through the year 2000.

In September 1978 the Nisqually Delta Association filed a 21-page list of complaints against the draft EIS, summarized in the opening paragraph: “We must preface our specific comments with this one, overriding judgment: we know of no reputable authority of professional standing in land use planning that would advocate putting an industrial complex next to a wildlife sanctuary or conservancy area” (Statement, September 20, 1978). The association urged further analysis of these issues and asked the City of DuPont to reject the draft EIS.

The Nisqually Delta Association galvanized its members and jumped into action, focusing on getting publicity and raising funds. Members produced bumper stickers, buttons, calendars, and posters, plus they held a variety of events intended to create community around the issue. President Flo Brodie’s home was turned into a bustling headquarters during this period, with countless files scattered throughout the house and supporters filing through. Local artist Tom Ingham, well-known for his Playboy magazine illustrations of jolly animals among other things, drew posters for the association.

The association was determined to prevent the project, and, despite accusations from Weyerhaeuser, its claims were all firmly rooted in legitimate concerns. “While it is not the basic strategy of NDA to prevent the Weyco project by delay tactics, it has nevertheless been necessary for NDA to legally challenge improper or incomplete governmental procedures and thereby compel adequate treatment of public concerns” (Position Statement).

On January 12, 1979, the Nisqually Delta Association and the Washington Environmental Council filed a suit with the Pierce County Superior Court to block Weyerhaeuser’s plan to build an export facility at the Nisqually Delta. The association argued that the City of DuPont had not conducted the required zoning plan, and asked the County to prevent the City from moving forward on approving the proposal until a comprehensive zoning plan was made. Under the current zoning ordinance, the site was zoned “Urban,” allowing for heavy industrial use, a designation left over from the days of the now defunct DuPont explosives manufacturing plant, and from before the creation of the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge. But the Pierce County Superior Court sided with the City of DuPont, and upheld the validity of the proposal.

In October 1979, when the Nisqually Delta Association and the Washington Environmental Council appealed this decision, Weyerhaeuser was feeling the pressure, but as Richard Lucas, vice president of Weyerhaeuser, said, the company wasn’t "terribly surprised" by the suit. "They’ve done everything else to harass us. We expect a lot more of it before we’re through" (Daily Olympian October 17, 1979). The state court of appeals approved the proposal, and the legal challenges continued.

From there, the dispute moved on to the State Supreme Court. Attorney Henry Lippek represented the Nisqually Delta Association, which continued to demand a comprehensive plan of the DuPont area, convinced that such a plan would show how a large lumber-export facility would not fit in with the community and would be detrimental to the local environment. As Flo Brodie put it, “Undertaking the required comprehensive planning process would reveal the enormous economic costs and environmental risks of the Weyerhaeuser proposal. The Weyerhaeuser proposal is just the kind of incompatible development that an appropriate comprehensive plan would prevent” (Press Release, January 12, 1979).

Blind Opposition?

In January 1980, Audubon Magazine published an article about the Nisqually Delta port controversy titled “A Matter of Blind Opposition?” suggesting that the Weyerhaeuser proposal might actually be the best possible industrial use of that land parcel and that environmentalists were perhaps judging the proposal too harshly. Author Daniel Jack Chasan extensively quoted Gordon Alcorn, the University of Puget Sound ecology professor, saying that

“he’s not sure that in the real world the property has a better use than the one to which Weyerhaeuser wants to put it. The land is ‘no good for a preserve,’ Alcorn says, and no good for either agriculture or a park. Therefore its only two conceivable uses are housing and industry. ‘I’m a conservationist,’ he says, ‘but I guess I’m a realist. You can’t just put a fence around those thousands of acres. You can’t expect Weyerhaeuser to pay taxes and not use it’’ (Audubon, 1980).

Chasan emphasized finding a use for the land and showing the alternate sides of the story. Nisqually Delta Association members bristled at the insinuation that they were overreacting, and felt betrayed by the National Audubon Society, an influential organization that they presumed would support their position.

In response, members of the Nisqually Delta Association and its allies bombarded Audubon Magazine with letters. Helen Engle, President of Washington Environmental Coalition and Nisqually Delta Association board member, chastised Chasan, accusing him of pulling the Weyerhaeuser port skirmish out of context and making it look like “small potatoes.” In fact, she argues, “the scale of even the initial plans ... suggests that Weyerhaeuser has more up its sleeve than it is willing to say. Any such suspicions are by no means paranoid, as the author seems to suggest, but are confirmed by the company’s adamant and repeated refusals to agree to any protective covenants or environmental safeguards” (Audubon, 1981).

Lawyer Theodore Paul Hunter, of Lippek, Hunter, Caryl & Raan in Seattle, assumed Chasan didn’t fully understand the issues and went on to explain in his letter that Washington’s Coastal Zone Management Plan requires “the full utilization of existing ports before new ones are allowed. This policy is designed to prevent the proliferation of single-user ports on the shorelines of Puget Sound so that public access to and enjoyment of the shoreline resources may be available” (Audubon, 1981).

The editors of Audubon Magazine insisted that the article was meant to give a balanced view of the story, and pointed out that the article didn’t actually say “blind opposition,” that the the phrase merely appeared in the title followed by a question mark. However, in May 1982, Audubon Magazine editor Les Line traveled to the Nisqually Delta to personally show his commitment to the cause and to meet some of the people he had so infuriated. The incident brought some national attention to the Nisqually Delta, and proved how divisive the port plan was. The Nisqually Delta Association’s stance never wavered.

Flo Brodie's Passing

During these crucial years, Flo Brodie was battling health problems and finally stepped down from her position as founding president of the Nisqually Delta Association. She remained involved to a lesser degree until her death in 1992. Her memorial service was held at the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge, a testament to her devotion to this piece of land.

The Nisqually Delta Association had trouble filing her shoes, rotating through a succession of presidents in the 1980s including Bob Shirley (1939-1997), Ada Davis (1917-1988), Mary Martin, Jay Geck, and Tom Skjervold (b. 1957). The association struggled financially and held numerous fundraising events to gather both money and community involvement, including boat tours through the delta to give people first-hand experience with the lush natural environment.

The Delta in Court

On May 7, 1981, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 5-4 against the association's suit challenging Weyerhaeuser’s plan to build a log-exporting facility. The majority decision held that the Nisqually Delta Association and Washington Environmental Council could not challenge the proposal because only citizens living within the boundaries of the annexed land had the right to request review. Justice Fred Dore, who wrote the dissenting brief, said that, “It would strain the English language and common sense to say that petitioners are not in areas to be affected by the annexation” (The Seattle Times, May 7, 1981). Although the Shoreline Management Act called for natural areas to be treated as though they belong to all state residents, not just to those within the local jurisdiction, the Supreme Court maintained a tight focus on the City of DuPont’s comprehensive plan, and determined that the proposal was acceptable under that plan.

Nisqually Delta Association members refused to take yes for an answer and continued petitioning the Shoreline Hearings Board as it considered permitting for the project. From the association perspective, the Weyerhaeuser proposal was a test of the Shorelines Management Act -- if the port could be built, the act was a failure.

The June 1981 the Nisqually Delta Association membership meeting drew 250 attendees, 100 of whom volunteered their time to the cause, a sure sign of public opposition to Weyerhaeuser’s project. The board decided to hire Worth Hedrick as the first executive director of the organization to coordinate volunteers, communicate with the press, and build statewide coalitions to protect shorelines. Hedrick stated:

“The Association is launching a new campaign to preserve and protect the basic integrity of the Shoreline Management Act. We will be reaching out across the state and nation to educate and inform people about our work ... . We are joining with the Washington Environmental Council to protect the integrity of the Shoreline Management Act and to demand that the state comply with that law ... . The time has come to be done with negotiations. We have bent over backwards to work out an acceptable agreement with Weyerhaeuser, and found none existed for us” (Olympia News, July 22, 1981).

When Hedrick was hired in June, the association had $132.22 in the bank and by January it had $10,000. However, Hedrick resigned as executive director on January 15, 1982, citing a lack of funds to pay his salary. In his resignation letter he expressed continued commitment to the cause and disappointment that he had not been more successful at fundraising.

The state Shorelines Hearings Board approved the Weyerhaeuser proposal in January 1982, but required a few additional permits. Seattle attorney Richard Aramburu represented the Nisqually Delta Association and argued that parts of Weyerhaeuser’s plan were too vague, and could result in more than just wood-product exportation.

On January 15, 1985, the Washington State Supreme Court reheard the dispute and on March 7 ruled again that Weyerhaeuser could build its facility. Association  members mourned while many DuPont residents rejoiced at the prospect of an economic stimulus. The final agreement allowed Weyerhaeuser to build the port, but restricted its use with strict specifications about lighting, hours, and what exactly could be shipped. The Nisqually Delta Association had achieved some of its goals, but were ultimately disappointed that the port would be built.

However, just a few months later, Weyerhaeuser abandoned its lumber-product-export facility due to the economic slump. Janet Dawes suggested that Weyerhaeuser should be grateful to the Nisqually Delta Association for delaying the project and ultimately saving the firm money.

Residential Development Issues

Throughout the organization's history, the variety of issues that needed attention required members to choose their battles and divide their efforts within the unified organization. While some Nisqually Delta Association members battled industrial development near the delta, other members, including Janet Dawes (b. 1932), focused their energy on opposing several proposals for residential developments on both sides of the delta that would increase density and put a strain on the natural environment.

In April 1982, just weeks after the Shorelines Hearings Board granted permits to Weyerhaeuser to build the log-export pier on the east side of the Nisqually Delta, the real-estate branch of the Weyerhaeuser Company, in partnership with Burlington Northern, revealed plans to build an industrial and residential complex on the west side of the delta, called Hawks Prairie, for 6,000 residents and up to 20,000 jobs. Weyerhaeuser asked Thurston County to rezone the undeveloped land for high-density residential and light industrial use, up from low-density residential.

Although the Hawks Prairie plan was supposedly unrelated to the port project, the Nisqually Delta Association was not pleased with the prospect of heavy development on both sides of the delta. It worried that erosion from such a large construction project, combined with the increased population, water supply demand, and sewage output, could have detrimental effects on the delta. Despite these objections, the Hawks Prairie development was approved and the area was soon after incorporated into the City of Lacey.

In 1985, the Nisqually Delta Association was a busy organization and reached its membership peak of 1,300 members. Constant threats to the delta kept concerned citizens motivated and actively opposing development. In 1985 Ton Skjervold astutely observed that “the organization could easily be around for years and years, reacting to the proposed development on both sides of the delta” (Olympian, March 3, 1985).

In 1985, immediately after abandoning its plan to build a log-export facility in DuPont, Weyerhaeuser announced plans to build a mixed-use development called Northwest Landing on the same land. The plan included 360 homes, which would increase the population of DuPont by a factor of 23, plus 17,000 office and industrial jobs. The plan was revealed quietly, and it came as a surprise to the Nisqually Delta Association. 

As Flo Brodie said at the time, “Nobody really knows what they (Weyerhaeuser) are up to ... . It’s extremely difficult to find out what’s going on” (The News Tribune, November 13, 1988). The development was eventually built in the style of New Urbanism, featuring relatively small lots and walkable neighborhoods. The first residents moved in at the end of 1994, and by 1996 State Farm Insurance, Westblock Pacific, Lone Star Northwest, and Intel had located facilities there. By 1998, 240 homes were occupied.

"Love Canal of the West" 

The Nisqually Delta Association brought attention to the fact that the soil in DuPont was polluted due to the explosives manufacturing that had taken place there from 1909 to 1976. Weyerhaeuser claimed the land had only minimal, non-threatening amounts of contaminants, but in 1990 Janet Dawes called it the “Love Canal of the West,” and argued for extensive clean up. They were awarded a DuPont Works grant to clean up some of these soils in 1992, and the project lasted a decade.  

In 1997 the association was awarded a $25,000 Public Participation grant through the Washington State Departmen of Ecology's Model Toxics Control Act to involve the community in cleaning up pollution in DuPont. Tom Skjervold spearheaded this project and Ed Kenney was another leader from the Nisqually Delta Association.

A Milestone Agreement

In 1990, Lone Star Northwest proposed building a 344-acre gravel mine and barge facility in Weyerhaeuser’s Northwest Landing development at the old DuPont shipping dock half a mile from the edge of the Nisqually Delta Wildlife Refuge. A coalition of environmental groups, including the Nisqually Delta Association, joined forces with the Department of Ecology and appealed the City of DuPont’s approval on the grounds that the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek, where the port would be located, was protected under the Shoreline Management Act. Many DuPont residents supported the gravel-mining proposal for the jobs and economic development it would promote.

In 1992 the Department of Ecology rejected the Nisqually Delta Association's request to stop industrial use along the Nisqually Delta shoreline. Soon after, the association  entered into official negotiations with Lone Star over its port proposal. Mary Martin, then Nisqually Delta Association president, was married to a man who worked at the Department of Ecology, so she wasn’t allowed to directly negotiate. The job fell to Janet Dawes and Stan Cecil, who attended months of private negotiation meetings.

The final settlement agreement was signed on Christmas Day, December 25, 1994. When the settlement finally went public, many environmentalists were shocked that Lone Star would agree to move its facility. The new location of the smaller dock was at Tatsolo Point, 1.5 miles farther from the delta as well as closer to Lone Star’s gravel source, which would reduce transportation needs. The agreement dictated that Lone Star and Weyerhaeuser would pay $1 million to the City of DuPont to offset project impacts, as well as $1.75 million to an environmental trust fund over the next 25 years to be administered by the Department of Ecology and the Nisqually Delta Association to purchase additional land for the refuge. This money is now managed by the Nisqually River Land Trust, in a fund specifically to buy and expand protected delta lands. It was Janet Dawes’s idea to ask for it, as in her view the new dock location alone wasn’t enough. The City of DuPont was also required to remove from the Master Plan all urban-zoned shoreline areas. All parties accepted the compromises in this agreement, and were pleased with the outcome, making it a milestone agreement.

After the settlement was reached, the Nisqually Delta Association board felt that its mission was accomplished and wanted to disband. Tom Skjervold became president and had the foresight to put all the money into a legal defense fund that would hold the organization together. The association went into a period of hibernation in the mid-1990s, but this fund would allow the association to jump back into action when the delta was threatened again in 1997.

Concrete and Gravel vs. Birds and Fish

In 1997, CalPortland (formerly Lone Star Northwest) proposed expanding the gravel mine and building a concrete plant at its DuPont location. Local residents worried about the impacts of the expanded mine on their community’s future. The Nisqually Delta Association objected to the proposed mine expansion for what it believed to be violations of the terms of the 1994 Settlement Agreement. Skjervold insisted on invoking a dispute-resolution clause that was written into the 1994 Settlement Agreement, and extensively negotiated with CalPortland until they agreed to engage in the dialog and to pay for the association's attorney fees in 2007. After more than two years of face-to-face negotiations and $100,000 of attorney fees from the Nisqually Delta Association, a draft agreement was publicly released on June 24, 2011.

The still unfinalized supplemental agreement sets up terms for mine expansion that include the restoration of Sequalitchew Creek and Edmond Marsh and the preservation of a mile of shoreline and bluff north of DuPont.  This latest agreement would allow CalPortland Co. to submit a proposal to expand the gravel mine in the area, but would also require additional measures for assuring a project that has some very significant environmental mitigation. Skjervold explained it thus: “The 2011 Settlement Agreement doesn’t approve the mining. However, it puts forward a process, which might take six to seven years. Our next step is to engage a lot of stakeholders and help the city engage in public meetings” (South Puget Sound News, June 24, 2011).

As of September 2011, the NDA is working to mobilize and re-energize its member base to continue its efforts limit development of the delta. Since 1994 Skjervold has kept the organization together and he’s been instrumental in convincing the City of DuPont to consider creating a historic district at the Nisqually Delta. He has also worked to support the newly designated Nisqually Reach Aquatic Reserve -- a policy milestone that was just adopted on September 9, 2011, bringing a new order of conservation planning to some 30,000 acres of state-managed tidelands adjacent to the mouth of the Nisqually River.

Making a Difference

Since its foundation in 1970, the grassroots Nisqually Delta Association has persevered against large corporations seeking economic gain from the Nisqually Delta’s natural resources, steadfastly demanding official recognition and respect for this undeveloped natural area. Despite a number of setbacks, members remain hopeful and devoted.

Tom Skjervold reflects, “I think you can’t be an environmentalist with your eyes wide open and not be despondent part of the time. Because we have been doing a very poor job of taking care of our planet and at times seem to be moving relentlessly towards self-destruction. But by concentrating in this one small area, I feel like we have been able to make a real and positive difference" (interview with Tom Skjervold,  August 9, 2011).  

The Nisqually Delta has been fortunate to have a pack of effective and well-educated activists fighting for its environmental health. 


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A-15; Doug Underwood, “Weyerhaeuser Seeks Nisqually Rezone for Industrial Park,” The Seattle Times, April 17, 1982, p A-1; Elise Fogel interview with Tom Skjervold, August 9, 2011, Dupont; Elise Fogel interview with Janet Dawes, August 23, 2011, Lacey; Daniel Jack Chasan, “A Matter of Blind Opposition?,” Audubon Magazine, January 1980, Vol. 82, No.1, pp. 98-104; “Reader’s Turn,” Audubon Magazine, March 1980, Vol. 82, No. 2, p. 120; Vance Horne, “Editor Here To Mend Fences,” The Olympian, May 7, 1982, p. B-1.
Note: Mary Walker's death date was removed on July 9, 2012, considering that she is alive and well.

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