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Remembering our Mentors and the History to Save Nisqually

By Tom Skjervold

I first met Jack Davis at the old Olympia Center where the Nisqually Delta Association (NDA) was having a general membership meeting. I think that was in the late 1970s, and the organization was itself then approaching the end of its own first decade.

Association founders had been instrumental in the passage of the State's Shoreline Management Act, and thus the Nisqually Reach is specifically called out in the Act as one of five specially named "Shorelines of Statewide Significance." They had also helped develop the political will to turn back an industrial port proposed for the Thurston County portion of the Nisqually Reach shoreline, and helped carry forward the effort to establish a Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Jack Davis, along with his wife, Ada, were all about saving the ecological integrity that made up the functional Nisqually Estuary. It was at that first meeting when I expressed outrage that a timber company could get control of property that was adjacent to the new Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, and a portion of a Shoreline of Statewide Significance, and then declare a plan to build a new, private, industrial super-port.

What they first described was a mega-industrial complex that, built out, would cover 3,500 acres and miles of shoreline -- an international ocean shipping facility, vertically integrated raw materials to manufactured products for export, and facilities for import too.

There was to be a huge new dock to be built all across the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek, directly adjacent to the newly formed Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR). How could that be allowed? Isn't that against the law? Can't something be done about that?

Yes! That is exactly right! It is clearly against the law! What you can do is help us take this issue to court! What you can do is join the Nisqually Delta Association Board!

That was the start for me, 35 years ago. I have been slogging along in the same public policy trench ever since. I guess if I would give myself credit for anything it would be for tenacity and perseverance. But without the mentorship of Jack Davis all those years ago, I might not have gotten to this place today.

That plan for a super port turned into a fight over the building of a dock, and it took a full decade for the matter to be at least partially resolved by the State Supreme Court. The Court allowed the dock to be permitted, but with some key restrictions related to the concerns we had collectively raised.

The proponent pulled the permits needed to build the dock, but never started the project, apparently because of the use restrictions we won in court. The permits lapsed, and they began looking for new uses for the Nisqually Reach Shoreline.

In the early 1990's they were back with a plan to start a new mine on that same property, and ship the material off from a similar dock, also at the mouth of Sequalitchew Creek. The plan was for a highway down the creek canyon, which would have obliterated the most ecologically diverse plant and animal community within the boundaries of DuPont. The Nisqually Delta Association, with the support of our Audubon friends, challenged the plan and eventually ended in a 1994 Settlement Agreement that was supposed to end what by then was already a nearly 20-year legal dispute.

The 1994 Settlement Agreement represented a sort of completion of a legal fight that went back to the very earliest days of the Nisqually Delta Association. It allowed a dock to be built along the DuPont shore, but up at the very end of the Shoreline of Statewide Significance, a mile and a half further from the NNWR than the dock that the timber company first proposed.

It also sought to protect the marine bluffs along the DuPont Shoreline, and to preserve the flow in the little known Sequalitchew Creek. Sequalitchew Creek, a trickle today, was once sustaining fresh water system that had been home to the Nisqually People for millennia, and was the site of the first European and later first American settlements in the Puget Sound basin.

For awhile we thought that the 1994 Settlement Agreement was the final word in Nisqually Delta protection. And it might have, had there not been for the interest in more gravel. In 2007 the new mine owners came back with a plan for mine expansion, and the plan they put forward showed a flagrant disregard for the conservation measures we thought were secured by that earlier agreement.

I led an effort to call foul. We invoked a dispute resolution clause in the 1994 Settlement Agreement and went to work negotiating a new settlement. We have just now come to final approval of a supplemental settlement agreement, a 2011 update of the terms that we started negotiating back in 1993!

So where are we today in the now over-forty-year-old struggle to save Nisqually? Starting in April 2012 we will be moving forward on a $200,000 thousand dollar effort to develop a new Sequalitchew Creek Watershed restoration plan.

We have a new settlement agreement, that will allow for some expansion of the existing mine, but in a way that is fully consistent with the terms of the 1994 Settlement Agreement. The mining company has agreed to protect the marine bluffs fort their ecological and scenic values, and make that area accessible for passive recreation.

In exchange for allowing some mine expansion, we are going to begin the development of a Sequalitchew watershed restoration plan. When completed, that plan will be used to help determine if further expansion of the mine is feasible in light of the conditions of the 1994 Settlement Agreement.

I envision taking an active role in the watershed restoration plan, just I have throughout the history of this matter, and at the end of the year, we will have a written plan that can provide the guidance and design work that is an essential precursor to success.

If the plan is something we can all agree to, and we have a plan that includes sufficient modeling and testing built in so we can feel comfortable moving forward with a high probability of success, additional mine expansion may be allowed in exchange for funding to implement the restoration plan. There is also the potential to call the whole deal off, however, I do think that there is real potential for an outcome that could be very good for the Sequalitchew watershed in terms of restoration.

Over the years there were some very dark moments, when a pledge of support from our sister organizations saved the day. Once again it appears that by working together we may be able to help move conservation efforts forward. Please, come and join me in helping to "Save Nisqually" for tomorrow, and the generations yet to come.

Tom Skjervold is president of the Nisqually Delta Association. He received the Jack Davis Conservationist of the Year Award by the Black Hills Audubon Society on March 3, 2012. This article is a portion of his acceptance remarks. For more information about the Nisqually Delta Association, contact Tom at tskjervold@gmail.com or (360) 485-9470.

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