IT WAS ANOTHER tough week in the news. The WDFW, aka the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, or “We Destroy Fishing in Washington” depending on whether you fish or not, has decided to close the Chehalis River system to steelhead fishing.
The Chehalis represents one of the largest and most productive rivers in Washington. From its beginnings in the foothills of southwest Washington, the Chehalis flows northwest toward the Olympics where it is joined by the Satsop, Wynoochee, Wishkah and Humptulips before entering Grays Harbor.
These rivers have many things in common with the rivers of the west end of the Olympic Peninsula. They were once filled with fish. They have retained their Native American names as evidence of the long history of Native American habitation and fishing.
That was until the Chehalis Treaty of 1855.
Washington’s Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens ran this show. Stevens also served as a railroad surveyor, the territorial delegate to Congress and superintendent of Indian Affairs.
Stevens ruled Washington Territory with martial law, a private army and a mercurial temper.
He used threats and intimidation to get the tribes of Washington to sell their lands. The terms of the treaty required the tribes of the Chehalis river to be removed to a remote, fictional reservation located somewhere between Quinault and Cape Flattery.
There, it was proposed the tribes would live in harmony, farming with their traditional enemies. Their former homelands were opened for European homesteaders. It’s how the “West was won.”
Treaty negotiations were, according to the ethnologist and historian James Swan, translated from English to Chinook Jargon, then to various tribal dialects and back again. Confusion was inevitable. Swan described these futile attempts at translation as “a poor medium of conveying intelligence.”
Stevens sweetened the deal with a hundred bushels of potatoes. It’s unknown if any of the tribal leaders who signed the treaty understood they were trading a big swath of Washington state for a big pile of potatoes. But they probably didn’t.
The Chehalis Treaty established tribal fishing rights that were affirmed by the 1974 Boldt Decision. It gave the tribes a right to 50 percent of the harvestable fish. This started a fish war where each side raced to catch the last one.
People have been fighting over the fish ever since in a dysfunctional relationship called, “co-management.”
That’s where the state and the treaty tribes make imaginary predictions of how many paper fish will come back and decide how best to divide what is left between the co-managers. When the imaginary fish fail to come back, the co-managers blame the loggers for habitat loss.
The Chehalis emergency closure is the latest in a series of environmental disasters with no coherent solution. The emergency closure seems to be the go-to method of dealing with our dwindling fish populations.
All of the rivers of the Puget Sound and streams emptying into the Strait of Juan de Fuca were closed to fishing Jan. 31.
That leaves the rivers of the West End of the Olympic Peninsula as practically the last waters in the state of Washington where you can fish for steelhead.
The secret got out.
Our rivers are plugged with hordes of anglers in crowds not seen since the old days. The main difference being in the old days, people were catching fish.
Now gangs of frustrated fishers stalk the gravel bars with a doomed desperation looking for someone to blame and pass more laws to save the fish. Soon our beloved rivers of the West End of the Olympic Peninsula will be subjected to another emergency closure. That’s co-management inaction.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing and rafting guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360- 683-9867 or by email via [email protected].