Rename wildlife refuge in honor of Billy Frank Jr.

Billy Frank Jr. died in May 2014, but his spirit lives on in the land and waters he loved and worked hard to protect, the Nisqually River and its delta.

So it is more than appropriate that the refuge located at the mouth of the Nisqually in Thurston County be named for Frank, the beloved tribal elder and longtime chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, has introduced the Billy Frank Jr. Tell Your Story Act in Congress to designate the Nisqually River Delta refuge as the Billy Frank Jr. Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

The legislation to rename the wildlife refuge in honor of Frank was introduced recently by the House Natural Resources Committee’s federal lands subcommittee. Its chances for advancing are good because it has broad bipartisan support of the state’s entire congressional delegation, and Heck has enlisted the backing of influential House Republicans.

In addition to honoring Frank, H.R. 2270 would create a National Historic Site at the refuge location where the 1854 Medicine Creek Treaty was signed. And it instructs the Interior Department to work with the Nisqually, Puyallup, Squaxin Island and Muckleshoot tribes to tell their stories at the site.

The Medicine Creek Treaty took Indian land, created reservations and gave Puget Sound area tribes the right to fish “at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations.” Those fishing rights were ignored by territorial and later state officials. But the treaty language later set the stage for the 1974 Boldt decision, which affirmed 20 coastal treaty tribes’ rights to half the fish harvest in Washington.

Frank was on the front lines of the “Fish Wars” in the 1960s and ’70s that led up to the Boldt decision, and he was arrested more than 50 times during the struggle to enforce Indian fishing rights.

But Frank understood that those rights meant little if fish habitat was being despoiled. Protecting the region’s watersheds and restoring salmon became his life’s work, and he was a master at bringing stakeholders together toward that purpose.

The Nisqually refuge, which in recent years has had its estuary restored to a more natural state with the removal of dikes and levees, is an appropriate place to honor this Northwest statesman.

This column reflects the views of the editorial board of the News Tribune newspaper in Tacoma.