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From left right: Nisqually Tribe Chairman Willy Frank III, Jim Wilcox of Wilcox Family Farms, and Nisqually Tribe Natural Resource Director David Troutt are shown in a still image from the TVW/Collaborative Leadership Project.

A new oral history project looks at the unique development of natural resource policy in Washington state

Our affiliates at the Center for Urban Waters and external partners will examine 50 years of collaborative leadership in the state leading to groundbreaking outcomes on forest, fish, wildlife, land, and water management. Funding secured to date includes generous gifts and pledges from Anchor QEA, the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, the Nisqually Tribe, the Puget Sound Partnership, the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, the Squaxin Island Tribe, the Suquamish Tribe/Suquamish Foundation, the City of Tacoma, the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, and Washington State University.

Billy Frank Jr. was just 14 years old when he was first arrested for fishing in the Nisqually River. Few, if anyone, knew that the moment would eventually be seen as historic and would become a symbol of tribal sovereignty and fishing rights.

Frank would be arrested more than 50 times as he led “fish-ins” and other protests in the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately setting the stage for the Boldt decision in 1974, a federal court ruling (later confirmed by the US Supreme Court) that upheld tribal fishing rights in the state of Washington. 

With Boldt, Puget Sound salmon policy and U.S. and tribal relationships entered a new phase. It was a moment of victory born out of intense conflict but the struggle to maintain treaty rights and manage Puget Sound’s salmon would shift from all-out “fish wars” to complicated policy negotiations. As a leader of the Nisqually Tribe and the first head of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, Frank would be a key player.

Suddenly, Frank and the protestors were in a position to insist on co-developing salmon policy with a state government that had, not too many years before, been arresting them. There was no question that the negotiations would be thorny, but Frank did something that may have surprised many of those involved. He got on with the work, choosing to look for common ground, not divisions. 

Frank’s son Willy Frank III, who is now the Chairman of the Nisqually Tribe recalls how his father was able to put his goals above his personal history. “I think about the bitterness, the anger, and the hostility he could have had towards people,” Frank III said. “And I never saw that, ever.”

Frank’s emergence as a bridge builder would go on to have a galvanizing effect on state and tribal efforts to protect and co-manage Washington’s salmon and shellfish populations. His legacy continues to influence policy makers across the board, even well after his death in 2014. 

Billy Frank Jr. photographed in 2014. Image courtesy of Ecotrust.

Now, almost 50 years after Boldt, a group of partners is looking back at what made those early negotiations, and the many collaborative processes that grew out of and followed them, so unique and important. A new oral history project, co-produced by our affiliates at the University of Washington Center for Urban Waters and TVW (our state’s version of CSPAN), will examine what it was that helped turn great moments of conflict such as the “fish wars” into moments of resolution and collaboration. It will further look at how those moments might inform the ways that policy leaders deal with future challenges. 

Known as the Collaborative Leadership Project, the effort is being led by Michael Kern, the former Director of the William D. Ruckelshaus Center, affiliate/adjunct faculty at UW and WSU, and now Director of Special Projects at the Puget Sound Institute. It will examine several key examples of collaborative leadership in the state, from salmon co-management to forest and water management, to the creation of the Puget Sound Partnership. 

“No one has assembled the stories of the issues, outcomes, and impacts of these landmark collaborations,” Kern says. “We want to preserve the legacy of collaborative environmental policymaking in the state of Washington.” 

The project is still in the pilot stage, but its producers hope to gather as many as 50 oral histories from some of the most important figures in Washington natural resource policy. The interviews will become part of a documentary film that will combine these interviews with archival footage from leaders like Frank, and Bill Ruckelshaus, the first head of the EPA, who died in 2019.  The producers hope to release the film in conjunction with next year’s 50th anniversary of the Boldt Decision, as well as other milestones like the unveiling of a statue of Billy Frank, Jr. in the US Capitol Rotunda. Project collaborators include Jennifer Huntley and Renee Radcliff Sinclair of the public affairs TV network TVW, Nisqually Tribe Natural Resource Director David Troutt (who worked closely with Billy Frank), Jim Waldo, Board Chair of the Center for Urban Waters (a mediator of many landmark collaborative processes), and Joel Baker, Director of the Puget Sound Institute.  

Recently, I had a chance to ask Kern about the project and how he hopes it will develop over the next year. In 2023, Kern says, salmon policy remains just as important and contentious. The right to fish in the Nisqually River may be settled law, but treaty and fishing rights have taken on an added dimension — the survival of the salmon themselves. As climate impacts increase and salmon habitat degrades, complex negotiations concerning the preservation of natural resources will only become more urgent. Kern says it is important that current and future policymakers learn from past leaders, since what has happened in the state of Washington over the last 50 years can be a model for the rest of the nation and the world. 

Q: Where did the idea for the project come from and why is a project like this needed?

This idea has been kind of bubbling around in my head for a number of years. I’ve had the privilege of working on collaborative policymaking in the state of Washington, and in particular in natural resources, for more than 30 years. And that’s included the opportunity to work with a lot of the remarkable figures who’ve led to the incredible achievements here. So, over the years, I’ve seen people retire. And increasingly, unfortunately, I’ve seen some of these leaders beginning to pass on. And with each year, we lose more of that institutional knowledge, we lose that leadership. That was the genesis— realizing that we had this window that was closing, to talk to these folks, document their history and make sure we continue to benefit from these achievements moving forward.

Q: Can you give me a little bit of background about who you’re going to be talking with? 

We anticipate it will be about 50 oral history interviews. We’ll be sitting down with people for somewhere between an hour or two, and just asking them some open-ended basic questions about their experience and recollections. We want to talk with the people who made history or, if those people have passed on, the people that might have known them. We’ll put those interviews together and make them available for scholars, historians, and whomever else is interested. We’ll find the right places to archive them so that they’re widely available in the future. We’re fortunate that TVW is enthusiastically on board to be our video production partner, so they’re going to record [the interviews]. We’ll be working with them to distill everything down to a documentary film that will tell the tale in a succinct form. 

Q: What does this history have to teach us about the problems we face today? And how does history inform where we are now?

There could be a temptation to look at this as just a history project. I do think it’s great that we’re documenting this history, because it’s important, and it would otherwise be lost. But I think that may be the second most important thing about this. The most important thing about this project is what it means for our present and our future. This is about making sure we preserve that history, not for its own sake, but so that the next generation of leaders and the current generation of leaders have access to that wisdom and can adapt it to fit their own needs. It’s not like our challenges have gotten easier. They’ve gotten even more complex. As we’ve spoken to people, we’ve heard that some of our important collaborative processes are fraying somewhat. We need to remind ourselves of the importance of these processes, that they didn’t just happen, and what we stand to lose if we let them wither and can no longer work together effectively.

Q: Is there anything you can point to in our current time that is especially relevant to collaborative leadership?

Are there any challenges that I couldn’t point to? Consider climate change. That’s a huge challenge we’re going to have to overcome. And we have challenges outside of natural resources like homelessness and housing security. We know those issues are going to require a level of collaboration that is more boundary spanning than we’ve ever taken on. I think one of the reasons why the Center for Urban Waters was interested in being a home for this project is because there are so many policy challenges that fit this subject. Puget Sound cleanup is a great example. You can’t achieve that if people are not working together effectively across institutional boundaries, geographic boundaries, and political boundaries.

For more information on the Collaborative Leadership Project, including a short introductory video, contact information, or to support the project, visit