Shifting Tides -- Newcomers Awaken The Sleepy Nisqually Delta

THE WATER of the Nisqually Reach is like spangled iron as Nugie Kautz races from west to east in his flat-bottomed jet boat. A stiff autumn breeze corrugates the surface so that the boat bucks and slaps and every so often cracks into a liquid speed bump that launches us like a skipped stone. After banging across the brine for 10 minutes or so, we catch the wide hook of fresh water that flows out of the grass and ride it into the marshlands of the delta. A glacier named Nisqually sparkles on the flank of Mount Rainier 78 miles upstream. We glide now on its melt.

About half a mile upriver, Nugie's son Slim Kautz teaches his 12-year-old daughter Mariah how to set net for the last straggling coho of this year's run. Mariah concentrates on paying out the net while watching her dad intently for cues. Meanwhile, Nugie and Slim joke and nonchalantly jockey the boats against the current. The nylon curtain drops to the river bottom on the basalt blocks Slim uses for weights, and Mariah gives everything a nervous once-over. With one form of net or another, her Nisqually family has been doing this work in this place for a hundred generations or more.

Few people who pass through the Nisqually Delta see the river from this ancient perspective. Most encounter it while hurtling down the concrete river of commerce called I-5, and even then it takes you by surprise. Except for the interstate itself with its small commercial strip, the pasture, marshlands and forested bluffs look largely as they must have 60 years ago.

On the map, the sodden lower Nisqually Valley joins the waters of Puget Sound as the stem of a goblet joins its cup. The thickened juncture at the top of this stem is the Nisqually Delta and Flats. The swooping arc of shoreline from DeWolf Bight in Thurston County to the DuPont Wharf at Sequalitchew Creek in Pierce County describes the bottom half of the cup. If it were possible to stand in a single spot looking north and see all of this in one fish-eyed panorama - say, from a heroically tall stepladder atop Tiny's Burger Hut - the beauty of it would swell the heart. If you could see this through lenses that revealed biological richness, the land might appear as a single thriving organism. Northwest naturalist Jack Davis is quoted in the Nisqually Delta Plan as saying that in terms of protein productivity, the Delta may be five times as rich as a wheat field. And, at a time when salmon stocks on other Puget Sound rivers have all but disappeared, Nisqually anglers like the Kautzes are seeing good runs of coho and great runs of chinook. If your mission were to save the last best chunk of Puget Sound from development and pollution, you would probably break out in a heat rash about now.

The logical thought is that this quiet, green place has somehow slipped off the hook - an oversight that time and venture capital will soon reverse. The fact is, this is where modern commerce began on Puget Sound, with the arrival of the Hudson Bay Company in 1832. Prior to that, the valley was a major population center for Salish peoples and a trading nexus for Native Americans from both sides of the Cascades.

The newest kid in the neighborhood goes by the name of Intel. In mid-October the city council of DuPont approved Intel's permit to build a microprocessor plant a long chip shot from the original site of Fort Nisqually, about four miles into Pierce County from the river. According to Intel, the plant will employ 1,000 workers by September, with employment reaching nearly 6,000 in five years. The plant site lies at the heart of a planned residential/commercial/industrial development by the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company called Northwest Landing. According to the Weyerhaeuser literature, Northwest Landing will turn the sleepy town of DuPont, population 600, into an edge city of 10,000 over the next 30 years. With the coming of Intel, however, local business analysts are throwing those numbers out the window.

With Weyerhaeuser building planned communities both east and west of the delta, the area is in for an unprecedented population boom, and the businessmen, farmers, tribal fishers and conservationists who have existed uneasily together in this place for a century and a half hear the thunder of corporate footsteps. It is an auspicious time for them to find common ground.

THE DELTA PLAN, AN otherwise masterful assessment of the Nisqually Delta written by the American Littoral Society under a Bullitt Foundation grant, describes the land north of Interstate 5 as, ". . . a piece of wilderness, an unspoiled place to touch the earth." Unspoiled, mostly, but hardly wilderness.

The wildlife refuge itself has been radically altered by human activity. It consists of 2,800 acres of freshwater and saltwater marsh, prairie and mud flats. In 1904 Seattle attorney Alson Lennon Brown drained 1,500 acres of salt marsh between the Nisqually River and McAllister Creek and built a self-contained mega-dairy and hog farm that went bankrupt after only 15 years of operation. Agriculture continued here on a lease basis until the early 1970s, but all that remain of Brown's ambitions are some gnarled fruit trees and the five miles of ring dike. The old Brown Farm forms the heart of the refuge.

Had it not been for the self-described little old ladies in tennis shoes, the old Brown Farm today might very well resemble the mouth of the Puyallup River or the Duwamish Waterway. Shortly after World War II, smokestack visionaries started drawing plans for a landfill for the city of Seattle, an aluminum mill for the Port of Olympia, a container operation for the Port of Tacoma, and an oil refinery.

In 1965, before the words "environmental impact statement" had entered the vernacular, naturalist Margaret McKenny, fellow Olympian Flo Brodie and a small band of citizen activists and bird lovers declared development of the Nisqually Delta unacceptable. Helped by the rising national tide of environmentalism and passage of the Shoreline Management Act in 1971, McKenny and Brodie prevailed, and in 1974 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchased the entire Brown Farm and established the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge by act of Congress. It was a triumph of grassroots activism that sparked a vision that one day the entire Nisqually River corridor would come under public conservancy, from glacier to sound. Environmentalists were on a roll and anything seemed possible. None talked about the deficit, or a property-rights backlash. Congressman Randy White was still waiting for his voice to drop, his face to break out and his first PAC check to roll in. It was, as they say, a simpler time.

Fish and Wildlife had barely moved its administration trailers onto the old Brown Farm when it started eyeballing the next big delta spread across the river. They were willing to offer cash, but they also made it clear they would seek to condemn the land if that's what it took to preserve it from development. To the Braget family this seemed less than neighborly. It seemed downright un-American.

A GREGARIOUS, MIDDLE-aged bachelor in torn barn boots and greasy cap that says Cenex Lubricants, Ken Braget happens to be sitting on one of the prettiest pieces of real estate in the Northwest, 410 acres of Nisqually riverfront pasture, salt marsh and forested uplands. Braget's family has been on this farm since the turn of the century. He has a deed, he says, that bears the signature of Ulysses S. Grant. He has a lawyer and a fax machine, and if you care to argue with him about property rights and he can't win you over, he will wear you down. Braget knows his farm is the key piece in the long-term consolidation of the delta. Fish and Wildlife wants his land. The Nisqually tribe wants the land, and a host of land conservancy groups wouldn't mind getting in on the action.

Time and again members of the local environmental community have anointed Ken Braget as a "steward of the land." At this Braget howls with derision. "Slave to the land is more like it!" he says, pointing out that wetlands and growth-management regulations crafted by those same environmentalists, bureaucrats and their ilk have stripped him of any proper financial reward for his family's stewardship. They've made profitable farming an impossible proposition. He can't sell for highest and best use, can't thrive on cows, and he won't shut up about the injustice of it. "The Lone Wacko!" he howls. "That's what they really call Braget."

Braget doesn't talk so much as inveigh, though watching him deal with the occasional hay customer you feel he would be quick to help someone in a bind. Neighbor or stranger, it would make no difference. In fact, it was just such an act of brave kindness that cost Ken's younger brother, Thomas Ward Braget, his life in 1956. When a vicious December storm stranded duck hunters on the tidal flats just off the Braget lowlands, the 20-year-old Ward went to the rescue in his dinghy. After his outboard failed, slashing southwest winds drove him helplessly into open water, where he faded from his father's sight. After 40 years this is still well-remembered lore around the Delta, and whenever the grousing about Braget's bluster gets a little too heated, someone brings up the story of Thomas Ward - not so much to explain what you encounter in Ken Braget but to remind you of what you don't.

Splendid as the land is, the architectural theme of the Braget spread is biodegradation. Grass grows out of the roofs of the dairy barns built by Olie O. Braget in 1905. The twin sheet-metal silos look like giant bullets of rust. Dead water heaters and car hulks with cracked tires and crusted windshields sit scattered among the outbuildings. The orangest overstuffed chair in the world sucks mist out of the air, while peacocks drape their outlandish tail feathers over the moss-padded roof peak, giving the whole scene the air of an alcoholic, feverish mirage.

Just across Braget's fence line, however, the Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company is dividing the highlands into two- and three-acre lots for executive homes. Zoned residential, Weyerhaeuser is on the money side of the Urban Growth Management Boundary. Zoned agricultural, Braget is on the hay side, and the Braget story has run itself down to the last chapter. Ken Braget has no children to leave the place to, no brother to take over. As far as getting the big pay-off for his family's 90 years of "stewardship" is concerned, well, he says he let that opportunity go when, against his father's judgment, he kicked the last Port of Tacoma executive off the land 35 years ago.

"We turned down one million dollars for just the bottom land," says Braget, arching his eyebrows, letting it sink in. That's one million in 1970 dollars. One million dollars when most of the Braget family was still alive to spend it. "After he left, my dad and I had a fistfight right there." Walter Braget died in 1983 after years of invalidism by stroke. "I denied my dad his retirement." This is one of the few things Braget says quietly.

Now with the death of his mother last year and the echo of that fistfight in his brain, Braget has turned the farmhouse into a public-relations center/lawsuit mill. He has formed an organization called Washington Taxpayers Alliance for Sustainable Economy (WAITASEC) and, ironically, has struck an environmentalist stance in an attempt to cripple or halt the Intel/Weyerhaeuser development. Since last fall he has filed a series of lawsuits against the City of DuPont, Pierce County and the Department of Defense. "We'll see if Braget has standing in court!" he bellows. At least two of the suits have already been thrown out.

In the meantime, Braget has negotiated a deal with the Nisqually Tribe for a $4.25 million purchase of his farm. The tribe has until September to exercise its option and must act within 30 days should a competitive offer be made. On top of the cash, Braget would get a lifetime residency on the land. And when asked what he would like the land to look like a hundred years from now, Braget stumbles, surprised by the question, and says, "I'd like it to look just like it does now," as if a person would be crazy to want anything else.

The Braget bottom land now looks pretty much like the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge looks, a weathered old spread of diked pastures, threaded with streams and crumbling cedar fences, wind-bent grasses, with cottonwoods, alder and blackberry creeping inexorably into the fields. The two properties are clearly a single stunning act of creation trying to reweave itself by dint of root and catkin, meandering current and tide wrack. An overhead view of this place confounds the notion of deeded property.

The Nisqually Tribe would like to help the Delta reweave itself in this process of benign neglect. This is critical habitat for both the fish they release from tribal hatcheries upstream and the native runs. Broad, undiked channels with plenty of natural cover and grasses are just what young fish need before embarking on their lives as ocean dwellers. Beyond that, the tribe is required by the state to acquire and set aside prime wetlands to offset the loss of wetlands that occurred when they built the Clear Creek Hatchery. All they have to do is raise the money.

As tribes go, the Nisquallys are far from rich, but they've come a long way in the past 25 years, and much of that progress has been built on the backs of fish.

In the early 1960s a ragtag group of Puyallup and Nisqually families started netting salmon in open violation of state fish and game regulations. This was at a bend in the river a half mile or so upstream from the Braget farm at a place called Frank's Landing. They went by the names Bridges, McCloud, Frank, Kautz and eventually hundreds of others. The Nisqually Fishing Rebellion went on for a decade, became a national drama and led in 1974 to the famous Boldt Decision guaranteeing the salmon fishing tribes of Washington half the annual catch in inland waters.

Though the Nisqually Tribe distanced itself from the Frank's Landing renegades, the Boldt Decision brought the tribe back from the edge of extinction. In the early '70s, with virtually no economic opportunity on the reservation, young people left home as a matter of course, and tribal enrollment dwindled. With Boldt the tribe suddenly had a substantial fishery to manage, and with fish the Nisqually children had a spiritual and material connection to the land that reached into the past and future. It wasn't the end of hard times, but it was something to build on, and they did. The tribe is now the primary manager of salmon and steelhead on the Nisqually River, and its work has resulted in record catches over the last few years.

George Walter, current Environmental Program supervisor, has worked for the Nisqually Tribe for 15 years. He has little patience with environmentalists who object to making a responsible living off the land. An example would be a proposed Nisqually cultural center on the Braget highlands. The center complex might spoil the dream of a pristine "viewshed" framing the delta, and some voices in the environmental community insist the tribe should devote all the land to wildlife habitat. Says Walter, "This tribe has seen whole neighborhoods go to hell. If they want to develop something, that's not such a terrible thing." And then in a line that's almost pure Braget, he adds: "It's almost as if Native Americans ought to be part of the scenery. They're people trying to make a living like everyone else." He says the tribe has every intention of exercising its option on the Braget land.

FOR THE MOMENT, all plans are on hold while the valley reels from the floods of February. Three million chinook and coho were washed out of tribal hatcheries, and the flood wreaked havoc on natural spawning beds. At Frank's Landing instant gravel bars, silt banks and sinkholes replace roads and homes, and old Willie Frank's ancient dugout canoe - a holy relic from the fishing rebellion - lies washed up in a heap of flood debris on someone's front porch.

The preliminary damage estimate at the wildlife refuge is $4.9 million in broken dikes, destroyed roads, trails and offices. They will be lucky to open the refuge to the public again by spring.

"Flood damage? You want flood damage?" yells Ken Braget. "This farm went down the river like sugar cubes. Three generations of dikes blown out, fences lying down, sediment filling the drains, road access gone. Three generations of blood, sweat and tears washed away." That's the downside. The upside is that Braget has figured a way to sue the state Department of Transportation over the way it constructed the southbound freeway bridge, which he claims caused a venturi effect on outflowing . . . it's a long story. Braget sees a silver lining. "Now there's going to be some compensation!" Raising his arms to the sky, he seems positively gleeful.

While the land drains, the river settles into its fresh-carved meanders and road graders rumble beyond the Braget fence line, Nugie and Slim Kautz mend their equipment in preparation for the runs of late summer. This might be the year Nugie's grandson, Shane, learns to set net.

Ray Kelleher is a freelance writer in Olympia. Harley Soltes is Pacific Magazine's photographer. -----------------------------------------------------------------

Nisqually history runs long and deep

3,000 B.C. Human beings settle in the land overlooking the Nisqually Delta from the north.

1833 The Hudson Bay Company establishes the first European settlement, a trading post and livestock farm named Fort Nisqually, on the present site of DuPont.

1854 At a place called Medicine (now McAllister) Creek, Territorial Gov. Isaac Stevens signs a treaty with representatives of tribes from around Puget Sound guaranteeing them perpetual access to fish, game and government social supports in exchange for tribal lands.

1855-1856 Finding the new tribal lands worthless, Chief Leschi wages war against Puget Sound settlers. Isaac Stevens agrees to a better location for the Nisqually reservation.

1858 Leschi is executed near Fort Steilacoom.

1904 Alson Lennon Brown designs an ambitious system of dikes and gates and drains 1,500 acres of Nisqually salt marsh to establish a thoroughly modern dairy and hog farm.

1906 Fort Nisqually site is sold to E.I. DuPont de Nemours & Company, which builds a high explosives factory, a cute company town, and a future toxic cleanup site.

1918 The U.S. Department of the Army condemns half the Nisqually Reservation, including homes, churches and six cemeteries, to establish Fort Lewis on the Pierce County side of the river.

1964 A handful of Indian families stage a fish-in at Frank's Landing that ends in a violent melee between protesters and game wardens and ignites public interest in Northwest Indian fishing rights.

1974 The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service purchases 2,800 acres of the delta, including the old Brown Farm, and creates the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

1995 The Intel Corp. signs an agreement with the City of DuPont to site a microprocessor plant near the site of old Fort Nisqually.