Nisqually Tribe buys back land, as watershed struggle

Standing alongside the Nisqually River at Frank’s Landing, Willie Frank III gives a blunt assessment, “Our watersheds are dying. Our rivers are dying and so are our streams -- we need to start putting back into the river what we’ve taken out over the past 30 years.”

Frank and I find ourselves talking at Frank’s Landing, the Northwest equivalent of ground zero for the Civil Rights movement.

His grandfather purchased the 6-acre plot to preserve a small piece of the tribe’s traditional fishing area -- the area would become famous as the site of the Fish Wars, after more than a decade of civil disobedience protests to recognize tribal fishing rights.

These days the concern is focused on protecting not only fishing rights, but the river and everything in it. At a time of climate change, dwindling fish stocks and development, Frank isn’t sure what will be left behind for future generations. There’s no guarantee that the salmon the Fish Wars were fought over will still be here in the next few generations, let alone the next decade.

Frank points to a salmon necklace noting he can’t imagine educating future generations in a museum about the fish -- it’s a piece of them, and it’s in danger.

“This water is sacred to us,” he said, as we stood next to the site of the Fish Wars at what’s now known as Frank’s Landing. “That mountain is sacred to us. Təqʷuʔməʔ, it means don’t forget the water.”

That’s why the tribe has been focused on buying land back -- not only because the land was once theirs, but because it’s a last-ditch effort to save what they can.

Earlier this year the tribe teamed up with the Nisqually Land Trust to purchase 2,200 acres of land along Busy Wild Creek -- feeding a main tributary to the Nisqually River. The purchase is part of a larger strategy to protect the Nisqually River, and the fish that reside in it.

The current plan, being enacted along with the Nisqually Land Trust, is to mimic old-growth forest and selectively grow the land so that trees take in less water -- so that the streams are more abundant, and colder for returning salmon.

“Many people don’t understand that connection between the health of our community and the health of these wild places,” said Jeanette Dorner, Nisqually Land Trust Executive Director. “The tribes that have lived here since time immemorial -- they understood those connections, and they still understand those connections. They managed the landscape in a different way to make sure these connections were healthy.”

Similarly, the tribe entered a separate agreement with the Greater YMCA of Seattle to add land near Mineral Lake -- a plan that will allow them to expand education about the tribe, while protecting more land.

The footprint is small compared to what the Nisqually Tribe once had. Before the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, the tribe resided throughout the Nisqually watershed -- settlers took the land and expanded over the years. By the early 1900s, another 3,000 acres of the Nisqually reservation was condemned and handed over to the Army to expand Fort Lewis, what is now part of JBLM.

“Right now, we are a checkerboard reservation,” explained Frank. “So, what we are always trying to do is buy our land back. It’s unfortunate we have to buy it back, but we’re always ready to come to the table if any piece of the land comes for sale along the Nisqually River in our watershed.”

The benefits aren’t just noteworthy for the tribe. Frank’s ancestors say the watershed was paradise before the white man arrived, and the goal of the tribe is to save what’s left: the fish, the water -- the environment in general.