(Editor’s note: EarthFix Field Notes are reporters’ personal impressions and experiences from their coverage of the Pacific Northwest. In this entry, Ashley Ahearn gives her appraisal of Port Gamble Bay on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula and the people involved in planning its future.)
PORT GAMBLE, Wash. — I met two amazing men the other day (It’s not every day a girl can say that) and I want to introduce them to you because I think that by getting to know Jeromy Sullivan and Jon Rose, I’m starting to understand the modern West a little bit better.
I drove out to Port Gamble Bay last week to do a story about 7,000 acres of timberland (owned by Pope Resources) that is up for sale. I’d never spent much time in the town of Port Gamble before but if you live in the Seattle area and have taken the ferry across Puget Sound for a trip out to the more wild reaches of the Olympic Peninsula, you’ve probably driven through Port Gamble.
It’s a tiny town. The houses are freshly painted. The lawns are perfectly manicured. There’s a general store and a small street lined with trees and little shops selling things like quilting materials and locally-made art. There’s an old firehouse where Christmas carols are played on a loudspeaker out into the street, making you feel like you’re driving through the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyworld. As my father would say, “It’s so cute you want to slap it.”
In a way Jon Rose calls the shots in the town of Port Gamble. He’s the president of the Olympic Property Group – a subsidiary of Pope Resources, which owns about 8,000 acres in North Kitsap County. The company also owns the town of Port Gamble.
That means that everyone living in the houses lining the streets, the people working in the general store – they all pay rent to Olympic Property Group.
I meet Jon Rose at the general store. The folks there know him. He’s a big guy – over six feet tall – sporting a cool leather jacket and an easy laugh. We walk around behind the building to look out over Port Gamble Bay – which is shaped like an egg with the town of Port Gamble at the top, where the bay connects with Puget Sound. Just below us on the shore are the remnants of an old mill. It was shut in 1995 but up until that point it was the longest in continuous operation in the U.S. It opened for business about 150 years ago when two men – Pope and Talbot – arrived from the Northeast looking for a good place to set up shop harvesting timber for the gold rush boom going on down in San Francisco.
Fast-forward to today and this area is surrounded by nice homes and vacation get-aways. People walk golden retrievers along the sidewalk in Patagonia coats. As Rose readily admits – “This isn’t a place for a treefarm.” (Read: it’s too much of a hassle to cut down trees here because the local residents are going to throw a fit – and there are enough of them around to really make a stink.)
So, Pope and Olympic Property Group are trying a different approach – they’re offering the 7,000 acres of the town of Port Gamble and surrounding timberland for sale. But they’re working with an interesting “real estate broker”. Forterra (formerly known as the Cascade Land Conservancy) is organizing a campaign to raise money to buy the land back from Pope Resources. Pope says they have to come up with the money within about 15 months’ time.
But when I ask Rose “How much?” he says he can’t tell me. He wants to give me a number (and I believe him) but the real estate market is constantly changing (the 7,000 acres could be subdivided and fetch a pretty penny as 20-acre lots for development) and if he lists a specific price tag he says his bosses at Pope won’t be pleased.
Rose is in an interesting and challenging position, which he readily admits has added some gray to his black hair. He’s trying to do right by his company (“we’re a business not a philanthropy”) but I do believe that he’s also trying to do right by the people that value this chunk of Puget Sound for its natural beauty (“We all hope to contribute to the greater good, in some small way, during our careers”).
There are some who value this area on a different level than those who have settled here in the last 150 years or so.
After leaving Jon Rose at the general store I drive down and around the egg-shaped bay to the Port Gamble S’Klallam reservation. There are more than 1,000 tribal members and just over 1,000 acres of reservation land, though the S’Klallam used to inhabit all of the territory surrounding Port Gamble Bay. The tribe wants access to the 7,000 acres across the water and they want to see minimal development of the wooded acreage and major cleanup done at the old mill site. They do not have the cash to buy the land themselves.
I meet Jeromy Sullivan at the tribal headquarters. He’s the chairman of the tribal council –- essentially the top political leader of the tribe. But there is nothing about him that smacks of a politician. He admits that he never pictured himself living in the public eye like this. Quite the opposite, in fact. He worked in I.T. for nine years and he has the calm, retiring personality of someone who spends a lot of time with computers –- and shares their methodical and logical approach to the world. He is a good listener, and over the years of handling the tribes I.T. needs, Sullivan slowly became a sounding board for tribal members who were frustrated about everything from computer malfunctions to the allocation of tribal funds.
For many tribal members, Sullivan says there will be some tough choices this holiday season – Christmas presents for the kids or paying the electricity bill? Buying gas or putting groceries in the fridge?
Shellfish harvesting and fishing in Port Gamble bay adds money to tribal pockets and puts food on the table. “If the fridge is empty, our membership heads to the shellfish beds,” Sullivan explains.
We head down to the shore below the tribal headquarters, get into a boat and motor out onto the frigid waters of the bay. From where we left shore you could throw a rock and hit the old mill. Behind it, lie the rows of pristine houses of the town of Port Gamble and the general store where I met Jon Rose. The houses on this side of the bay are not so quaint.
Above the sound of the engine Sullivan tells me about growing up catching fish here as a kid. He spent a lot of time on the water – as many tribal members do. In the summertime Sullivan says families will spend whole days down at Point Julia, at the mouth of the bay, just eating shellfish and enjoying one another’s company.
That’s part of why he’s worried about the sale of the 7,000 acres across the water. Right now Port Gamble Bay is relatively undeveloped. There aren’t too many waterfront homes, whose manicured lawns could contribute excessive nutrients due to fertilizer inputs and leeching septic tanks could lead to the closure of shellfish beds. There isn’t a marina, which can be a source of oil leaks and waste getting into the water. Today, the bay has minimal shellfish bed closures. Sullivan says that if that ever changes, “we’ve failed. I’ve failed. I don’t know what I’d do if I had to tell our membership they couldn’t eat the shellfish here.”
Sullivan and the Port Gamble S’Klallam have expressed their concerns over what happens if the 7,000 acres gets sub-divided and sold off for real estate development. “Pope can move on to someplace else,” Sullivan says, looking out across the water, “but we were here long before they arrived and we’ll be here long after they’re gone. We have nowhere else to go. This is our home.”
In a way, we’re watching the 19th century themes of colonialism and industrialism being replayed in 2011. We’re watching tribal interests colliding with business interests. Will this be a story of more resource extraction (now in the form of vacation home development) or will it be a story of partnership and shared vision for the future of this small piece of Puget Sound? Will these 7,000 acres be split up, mini-ranch by mini-ranch, or will there be trails and working forestland mixed with development?
I believe that the future of Port Gamble will be, in part, defined by these two men – standing on opposite sides of this bay. If they can work together then we may see a new version of the settlers and Indians story – an updated 21st century edition.
In the coming months Ashley Ahearn will continue to report on the land sale process in Port Gamble Bay.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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