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Parking lot is bargaining chip as Quileute tribe battles for land
The New York Times
LA PUSH, Clallam County — For half a century, the Quileute Indians pleaded with the federal government to add land to their tiny reservation on the Pacific Coast. When their patience waned, they launched a two-pronged, modern-day assault.
First, the tribe hired a publicist from the other Washington, who announced that a tsunami might crush the Indians' sea-level school, day-care center and senior center.
To make the point, Quileute children held a memorial service in January for young people killed a year earlier by the Indonesian tsunami, and the tribe issued a news release describing the "daily menace" the threat of tsunami held for their hamlet, La Push.
Then the Quileutes took a hostage: the parking lot of an exquisite beach in Olympic National Park.
The National Park Service is now paying attention. In a throwback to the presettlement era on the Olympic Peninsula, the federal government and the sovereign Quileute Tribe are negotiating a land swap.
"We're just running out of space," said James Jaime, 51, who was born and raised here and is executive director of the Quileute Tribal Council.
The Quileute Reservation covers a square mile at the mouth of the Quileute River. Half the property is in the river's flood plain, a problem in a place with high tides and at least 12 feet of rain every winter. The reservation is bounded on three sides by the national park and on the fourth by the ocean.
Tribal leaders say they need higher ground to build safer and better housing and recreational facilities for the tribe's 706 members. About 450 of them live on the reservation, Jaime said.
The park, a tourist destination with old-growth rain forest, jagged peaks and migrating salmon, has a long history of expansion across the Olympic Peninsula. And rarely does the National Park Service return land to its previous owners, said John Calhoun, director of the Olympic Natural Resources Center in nearby Forks.
The Quileutes may have been emboldened to make their case, Calhoun said, when the nearby Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe won a long legal battle to force the federal government to tear down two dams on the Elwha River in the northern part of Olympic National Park to restore wild salmon runs.
Like most tribes, the Quileutes, whose tradition says they are descended from wolves after a supernatural transformation, have a long history of negotiation with settlers.
In 1856, they signed a treaty with the federal government and its representative, Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory. In 1889, the federal government established the Quileutes Reservation at the river's mouth. The United States promised the tribe it could fish in its "usual and accustomed" grounds, and could hunt, gather roots and berries, and pasture horses on "unclaimed lands."
Nature, though, shrank the tribe's holdings. A storm in 1910 shifted the mouth of the river and sliced off an eight-acre wedge of tribal property. The Quileutes say that a 1953 presidential proclamation gave that wedge of land to the Park Service, creating an enduring boundary dispute that flared last year when two American Indians received criminal citations for collecting firewood there.
The Quileutes have offered to hand ownership of the eight acres to the Park Service, which has already built a parking lot and a restroom on the land at the edge of the popular Rialto Beach.
The tribe has also offered permanent access to the parking lot for Second Beach, to the south, which is admired by photographers for its offshore rock formations and storm-driven driftwood. The beach is federal property, but the parking lot is indisputably on the reservation.
The Quileutes closed the parking lot last October to pressure the Park Service, effectively taking Second Beach hostage. The Park Service was forced to close the beach and its trail, and complaints poured in from tourists and residents.
The tribe wants Olympic National Park to hand over 750 acres on higher ground. It also decided recently that the federal government should buy it 500 acres of privately owned timberland.
The tribe has no plan to expand its few commercial businesses — an oceanside resort, a fish-processing plant, a grocery store, a gas station, a marina and a restaurant — and no plan to build a casino, Jaime added. (The tribe receives $8 million annually in federal grants and $2.5 million from the sale of its slot-machine permits to other tribes.)
Park officials say their final offer is 274 acres, of which 200 can be used for development. "I think the tribe is negotiating in good faith," said William G. Laitner, superintendent of the park.
"It's time to settle it."
Gaining local support
Congress would have to ratify any change in the park's boundary, and Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat whose district includes most of the Olympic Peninsula, said the tribe should accept the park's offer.
If the Quileutes hold out for more, Dicks said, they will "wind up where they've been for the last 50 years."
But Jaime said the tribe might close off access to Rialto Beach, too, if the Park Service does not sweeten the deal. The tribe's strategy, while annoying some tourists, has won over many residents of the area.
The tsunami risk persuaded Nedra Reed, the mayor of Forks, also in Clallam County, to support the tribe, especially after a storm last winter tossed car-sized logs next to the tribal school.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company