7,000-acre-chunks of undeveloped land are harder and harder to come by in the Puget Sound region.
And this chunk’s got it all: wetlands, tidelands, timberlands, creeks and almost two miles of shorefront – all within an hour and a half of Seattle.
Just take the Bainbridge or Kingston Ferry and drive out onto the Kitsap Peninsula and you’ll come to the quaint little town of Port Gamble. It’s set on a protected bay that’s shaped like an egg.
View Port Gamble Bay in a larger map
The woods begin just behind the town. Jon Rose is president of the Olympic Property Group – a subsidiary of the landowner - Pope Resources. He’s showing me a particularly lush part of the 7,000 acres that’s for sale.
“This particular part of the woods is probably the most ecologically diverse and it’s also the closest to town,” Rose says.
Old cedar, hemlock and fir line trails that go for miles on land stretching south from here on the Kitsap Peninsula.
But as beautiful as it is, this land could be harvested for timber and then sold off in 20-acre lots for housing developments.
Rose is the guy in charge of the sale. But he’s a reluctant salesman, to say the least.
“If we end up with 20 acre lots, I think it bodes poorly for saving Puget Sound. I think it bodes poorly for ever working through to find a means between commerce, nature, politics, community to find a better solution.”
“If we end up with 20 acre lots, I think it bodes poorly for saving Puget Sound,” he says. “I think it bodes poorly for ever working through to find a means between commerce, nature, politics, community to find a better solution.”
That’s right. That’s a timber guy talking. Rose says the company wants out of this part of the state because it’s too heavily populated to operate a tree farm. Pope Resources is buying tens of thousands of acres in more remote parts of southwestern Washington and Oregon.
But here in Port Gamble, Rose sees an opportunity for his company to do something good for the environment and those who use this forest for recreation. In 2007 he called a community meeting to talk about the future of the land. Over 500 people attended.
“So that’s how we embarked on this torturous journey,” he says, laughing.
This “torturous journey” has involved partnering with several land conservation groups, two local tribes and local and county government to come up with a plan to raise the money to essentially buy the land from Pope Resources.
The 7,000 acres could then become a public forest with minimal development and tree harvest.
But this deal won’t last. Pope Resources has set a deadline for the purchase opportunity. If the funds aren’t on the way by the end of March 2013 then the timberland could be harvested and then developed.
Michelle Connor has handled conservation land deals for 18 years. She’s a VP at Forterra. “Port Gamble is one of the most interesting and challenging projects I’ve worked on.” She says, “There’s nothing comparable in central Puget Sound.”
Forterra is essentially a combination between a real estate broker, a community organizer, a conservation group and a philanthropy. They’re serving as the honest broker between the landowner and the various stakeholders in the region surrounding the 7000 acres. Connor’s job is to find funding to purchase the land.
But instead of going to one developer, or expecting to raise millions of dollars through philanthropy alone, Forterra hopes to stitch together the money from diverse sources.
For example, federal money for community forests could go towards purchasing some of the timberland. Money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could go to protecting the land along the shore of Port Gamble Bay.
Connor says that makes this process much more complicated.
“The first effort is to conserve the whole of it. I think we’ve got a credible shot at it, recognizing that there’s no canned answer. I wish it were that simple.”
This land isn’t just valuable from an environmental standpoint. It’s also an important historical and cultural site for the Northwest.
The lands surrounding Port Gamble Bay have been inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years. Pope and Talbot, the founders of Pope Resources, arrived here in the mid 1800s. Port Gamble soon became a thriving mill town, supplying lumber to the gold rush boomtown, San Francisco.
Pope has not set a price for the 7000 acres because that number will depend on how much the different sections of the land are worth and what funding sources Forterra is able to come up with. Michelle Connor says the figure will be in the tens of millions, but it’s a price worth paying.
“Having it be a place that is central to the story of both tribal and settlement culture in our region – it defines us. It’s absolutely what defines us and how we handle this situation, I think, defines our future.”
“Having it be a place that is central to the story of both tribal and settlement culture in our region – it defines us,” she says. “It’s absolutely what defines us and how we handle this situation, I think, defines our future.”
If Forterra fails and development of the 7,000 acres surrounding Port Gamble Bay goes forward, that could mean septic tanks, lawn fertilizer, marinas and more pollution in these waters. And there are many who would be directly impacted.
Just across the water from the town of Port Gamble I meet Jeromy Sullivan. He’s the chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam tribe. We climb into a motorboat and head out into Port Gamble Bay.
“The bay, as the S’Klallam’s know it is called “land of the mid day sun” in S’Klallam. It’s been home to the Klallam people for thousands of years, this bay has been, so it’s a very important resource, both natural and cultural resource to our tribal members here.”
We motor out past the site of the old mill and Sullivan lists off the seafood that comes from this bay.
“There’s crab, Dungeness crab, which is one of our favorites. Our people like to eat cockles for our clam bakes, littlenecks, oysters, manila clams, horseclams, geoduck not to mention a variety of salmon that come through here to go to our different creeks along the bay.”
These aren’t just recreational fisheries Sullivan is talking about. For many S’Klallam here this is a heavily relied upon food source.
“If they don’t have any food in their fridge or food in cupboards they come to the beach… and if we’re not able to come and harvest it could wipe out families. That’s not an exaggeration that’s truly what would happen. That’s why we fight so hard.”
“If they don’t have any food in their fridge or food in cupboards they come to the beach.” He says, “They pick up oysters they dig clams they go fishing, they find something to eat and if we’re not able to come and harvest it could wipe out families. That’s not an exaggeration that’s truly what would happen. That’s why we fight so hard.”
The Port Gamble Bay S’Klallam don’t have the money to buy the land but Sullivan says the tribe is working with Forterra and other community groups to come up with a plan for the 7000 acres.
“The land surrounding the bay - if the tribes can’t own it - we want it to go into a conservation effort of some kind, for it to be protected forever. We want to be at the table no matter what.”
There are a lot of people, with very diverse perspectives, at the table for this land deal. That, in and of itself, is a break from tradition. Like other timber companies before it, Pope Resources could just as easily sell the land off, mini-ranch by mini-ranch. But instead the company has opened itself to a potentially very different selling arrangement.
If the community surrounding Port Gamble Bay can demonstrate that there’s money out there to return commercial forests to community use, timberland in the Northwest may be poised for a very different future.