Originally published Saturday, September 24, 2011 at 5:01 PM

Future of forests near Port Gamble in the balance

Owner Olympic Property Group wants to shed forests adjacent to Port Gamble and is in intense negotiations with local tribes, environmental groups and Kitsap County planners.

Special to The Seattle Times

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PORT GAMBLE, Kitsap County — Perched atop a scenic bluff overlooking Puget Sound, this village of tidy historic homes and rolling parklands has long been a favorite stopover on the road to the Olympic Peninsula.

The whitewashed church, post office and general store conjure idealized images of 19th-century life in a Northwest milltown. On any given summer weekend, the site might host an elegant outdoor wedding, a medieval fair or a Civil War re-enactment.

More recently, however, the town has become the focus of a cultural and economic debate over the future of this rural corner of Puget Sound, including 7,000 acres of forestlands. The owners are threatening to carve this forest into 20-acre lots and sell them off — an urban planner's nightmare.

"We're fatigued," warns Jon Rose, president of the Olympic Property Group, which manages Port Gamble and its adjacent forests for the company that has owned it for most of 150 years. "We need to liquidate and move on."

These days, it's not for sale — pending the outcome of quiet, but intense negotiations that involve the owners, local tribes, environmental groups and Kitsap County planners.

One major voice is that of the Port Gamble S'Klallam Tribe, which gave up its village a century and a half ago and relocated across the bay to what became known as Little Boston. To them, historic Port Gamble represents a 150-year-old land grab that they yearn to see corrected.

"Growing up here, I couldn't believe that my people willingly moved off their land," says Jeromy Sullivan, the tribal chairman. "I still don't believe it."

That dispute dates to 1853, when Yankee businessmen Andrew Pope and William Talbot sailed into Puget Sound, looking for a good place to build a sawmill to provide lumber for Gold Rush San Francisco.

They decided on the site of an Indian village on Gamble Bay, which offered easy access to rich timberlands, a protected harbor and an ideal town site overlooking the bay.

According to the company history, the resident S'Klallam agreed to move across the bay to a new village site. In return, Pope and Talbot provided lumber for houses and jobs at the mill.

Over the years to come, the company acquired thousands more acres of timberlands around its mills at Port Gamble and Port Ludlow, making it a major force in the regional economy. To lure skilled workers from New England, they built Port Gamble to resemble a New England village.

So it went for some 140 years, during which the company maintained its town so well that, in 1966, Port Gamble was designated a national historic landmark.

The 1990s brought changes in lumber markets, environmental battles and more. The company became Pope Resources and, in 1995, closed its aging mill and began studying what to do with the town and surrounding timberlands.

Last year, the company proposed a sweeping redevelopment with 400 homes in the town and 800 more clustered in the nearby forest. They wanted stores and businesses, a hotel, restaurants and a marina — similar to its development at Port Ludlow and a similar project in Gig Harbor. In return for local approval of the necessary permits, the company would turn over thousands of acres of logged-out forestlands for recreation and green space.

That plan, however, soon died — a victim of local opposition and a depressed real-estate market.

"This land is no longer suitable for growing trees," Rose says. "We have to think 30 or 40 years into the future. If it's not timberland, what will it be?"

And he says he imagines Port Gamble looking more like nearby Bainbridge Island — a semirural culture with lots of green space.

The S'Klallam are deeply suspicious of any such development, says tribal chairman Sullivan. "We'd like to see protection of all the shoreline around the bay so it can be a beautiful environment for my kids and grandkids."

They want Pope to clean up decades of pollution from the mill site. And they want a presence in their original home site.

Rose says he understands the tribe's perspective. "The S'Klallam have a complicated stew of cultural values in this bay, including shellfish resources worth millions," he says.

But critics worry that the tribe would turn its ancestral village site into a casino similar to The Point Casino they run on their Hansville reservation.

Environmentalists have a different vision for those forestlands.

"We have a unique opportunity to protect 7,000 acres from development," says Sandra Staples-Bortner of the Great Peninsula Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation group based in Bremerton. " It would be a tragedy to see it broken up into 20-acre parcels."

Pope executives say they don't want that either, its officers insist. But they are obligated to realize some return to their stockholders. If the land can't be sold for conservation, then the company would have no choice but to put it up for sale, one parcel at a time, Rose says.

But Rob Gelder, a Kitsap County commissioner who has been involved in the negotiations, is confident that an agreement is near. "I think we are close to an option that would allow us to move forward and identify funding sources," he says.

That may be an even greater task. The value of 7,000 acres of undeveloped timberland is expected to be in the tens of millions of dollars, Gelder says.

The town site itself is not presently on the table. Its future will be determined by a separate process, influenced by whatever happens to the surrounding timberlands.

But Rose says they eventually hope to add housing and commercial buildings, while maintaining the character of a 19th century milltown.

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