The great leaders who forged the future of Washington’s forests and fish | Don Brunell

Billy Frank, Jr. and Stu Bledsoe came from very different backgrounds, yet their friendship and determination laid the groundwork for what today is known as Washington’s historic Forests and Fish agreement. Those accords paved the way to revitalized wild salmon habitats, cleaner water and better forest management.

Billy Frank, Jr. and Stu Bledsoe came from very different backgrounds, yet their friendship and determination laid the groundwork for what today is known as Washington’s historic Forests and Fish agreement.  Those accords paved the way to revitalized wild salmon habitats, cleaner water and better forest management.

Frank, who died early this month, was raised along the Nisqually River.  An avid fisherman, he was arrested more than 50 times defending tribal fishing rights. Frank’s activism earned the respect of tribal leaders and others. He served as the chair of the Northwest Indian Commission for 30 years.

Bledsoe’s father was a Vice Admiral in the U.S. Navy.  A graduate of UCLA, Stu was a World War II fighter pilot who settled on his Ellensburg cattle ranch. He rose through the ranks of the state legislature and was appointed Secretary of Agriculture by Gov. Dan Evans in 1976.  In 1978, Bledsoe became Executive Director of the Washington Forest Protection Association, the state’s private forestland organization.

Stu was raised with financial means.  Billy was not. Stu spoke for forest landowners.  Billy spoke for the tribes.  A landmark decision by Tacoma federal judge George Boldt brought them together.

In 1974, Boldt ruled that tribal fishermen had the right to half the salmon harvest.  Bledsoe soon realized that the most crucial part of Boldt’s ruling was the mandate that the state protect fish habitat.

Since salmon spend a critical part of their young lives in streams and rivers flowing through Washington’s 23 million acres of forestlands, traditional logging and forest management practices would have to change dramatically.  Roads would be constructed differently; clearcuts would be smaller and land along streams, near wetlands and on steep slopes would be put off limits.  It would be an expensive proposition.

Bledsoe had to convince forest landowners to make the changes.  Frank had to persuade tribal leaders to trust the forest landowners to keep their end of the bargain.

Over the next ten years, Frank and Bledsoe led the effort to figure out how to create this new future. The process became known as Timber, Fish and Wildlife.

The Timber, Fish and Wildlife agreement created the framework for the Forests and Fish law, an historic, science-based set of forest practice regulations that protect 60,000 miles of streams running through 9.3 million acres of state and private forestland.

Designed to comply with both the federal Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, the agreement is the largest and most comprehensive environmental agreement in the U.S.

Bledsoe, who died in 1988, never lived to see the Forests and Fish Agreement implemented, but its foundation was laid before his passing. Billy Frank, Jr. lived to become a legend and see salmon return to our rivers, streams and lakes in increasing numbers.

Today, forest landowners develop Habitat Conservation Plans, which are long-term forest management agreements between a landowner or local government and federal agencies.  HCP’s are one of the most innovative conservation programs designed to protect fish and wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.  Their purpose is to reduce conflict and encourage the development of “creative partnerships” between the public and private sector.

Frank and Bledsoe shared a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration that is rare these days. They were visionaries who knew that, if they didn’t take risks to shape change, our state would be paralyzed by endless lawsuits, political infighting, and losses for the natural resources they cared about so deeply.

Let us hope that today’s leaders can take heart and be inspired by their example to provide the same courageous and effective leadership in the future.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist.  He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at


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