Billy Frank Jr. and Stu Bledsoe came from very different backgrounds, yet their friendship and determination laid the groundwork for what today is known as the Forests and Fish agreement. Those accords paved the way to revitalized wild salmon habitats, cleaner water and better forest management.
Frank, who died early this month, was raised along the Nisqually River. An avid fisherman, he was arrested more than 50 times defending tribal fishing rights. Frank’s activism earned the respect of tribal leaders and others. He served the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission for 30 years.
Bledsoe’s father was a vice admiral in the U.S. Navy. A graduate of UCLA, Stu was a World War II fighter pilot who settled on his Ellensburg cattle ranch. He rose through the ranks of the Legislature and was appointed secretary of agriculture by Gov. Dan Evans in 1976. In 1978, Bledsoe became executive director of the Washington Forest Protection Association.
Stu was raised with financial means. Billy was not. Stu spoke for forest landowners. Billy spoke for tribes. A landmark decision by Tacoma federal Judge George Boldt brought them together.
In 1974, Boldt ruled tribal fishermen had the right to half the salmon harvest. Bledsoe realized the most crucial part of Boldt’s ruling was the mandate that the state protect fish habitat.
Since salmon spend a critical part of their lives in streams flowing through 23 million acres of forests, traditional logging and forest management would have to change. Roads would be constructed differently; clearcuts would be smaller and land along streams would be put off limits.
Bledsoe had to convince landowners to make the changes. Frank had to persuade tribal leaders to trust the landowners. Over the next 10 years, Frank and Bledsoe led the effort to figure out how to create this new future. The process became known as Timber, Fish and Wildlife.
The Timber, Fish and Wildlife agreement created the framework for the Forests and Fish law, a set of forest practice regulations protecting streams running through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.
Bledsoe died in 1988 and never saw the Forests and Fish Agreement implemented. Frank lived to see salmon return in increasing numbers.
Frank and Bledsoe shared a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration that is rare these days. They knew that, if they didn’t take risks to shape change, our state would be paralyzed by endless lawsuits, political infighting and natural resources losses. Let’s hope today’s leaders can be inspired by their example.
Don Brunell is an analyst for the Association of Washington Business. Email him at TheBrunells@msn.com.