To reporters in Western Washington, Billy Frank Jr. was the essential interview when it came to reporting on fish and shellfish issues.
Always gracious and enthusiastic, Billy would take my calls at just about any time of day, sometimes between conferences in Washington, D.C. He was willing to talk about anything, from environmental problems to court rulings. You name it.
Usually, he was not the best person to discuss the rigorous details I might need for a story. He left that to others. But one could always count on Billy to passionately expound upon the needs of salmon and how a particular policy or legal agreement would further the cause.
At 83 years old, Billy had watched the rapid rise of modern development and the sad decline of salmon populations throughout Puget Sound. He was at the center of the battle to restore tribal treaty rights and claim a place at the table where decisions are made regarding natural resource policies.
It didn’t matter to Billy if you were a concerned citizen, a U.S. senator or the president himself. He would greet people with a hug and thank them for their efforts. During his off-the-cuff speeches, he would urge everyone to keep working together, no matter what conflicts needed to be overcome.
Billy, chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, was in Kitsap County — Suquamish to be specific — 10 days ago to meet with Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. Kitsap Sun reporter Rachel Seymour heard him address the issue of salmon hatcheries. See Kitsap Sun, April 24 (subscription).
“Our hatcheries are under attack,” he said, saying that Puget Sound had become “poison” to the salmon. “The hatcheries are there because the habitats are gone. Big business says it costs too much to have clean water.”
That was classic Billy Frank, shooting straight into the heart of the matter.
I knew Billy on a professional level, but he had this rare trait for making everyone feel like a friend. Of all the stories I wrote, Billy was particularly pleased that I kept following the culvert lawsuit years after it seemed forgotten by most people — even the judge. In that case, the court ruled that Washington state has a duty under the treaties to fix highway culverts that impede the passage of salmon.
Billy appeared comfortable in most settings. He would plead and demand, calling on people to do the right thing, his speech peppered with occasional profanity. He was easily excited at reports of progress, but always disappointed at the extremely slow pace of ecosystem recovery.
His vision was to restore salmon populations to some semblance of their glory when people could still make a living from the bounty of nature. Without thinking, I always believed that Billy would be around to see his vision fulfilled, no matter how long it took.
Martha Kongsgaard, chairwoman of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, recalled hearing Billy speak last Thursday at the Salish Sea tribal dinner.
“Billy assured us that he would be here for at least another decade — he had so much work to do,” Martha wrote in a thoughtful tribute to Billy. “He mentioned that his father lived to be 104 and his mother 96 and that he hoped to split the difference. He was on fire, naming names, calling us all to the cause, to come together. He was as powerful as any in the room had ever heard him.”
As was his habit, Billy got up Monday and got dressed after his shower. He sat down on his bed and didn’t get back up. His son Willie found him a short time later.
It will be up to others to continue the fight to protect and restore salmon to Puget Sound. We can be sure that there will never be another Billy Frank. But those who knew him or heard him speak can still be empowered by the indomitable passion that made him such an unforgettable force.
Kitsap Sun/Associated Press story, “Tribal rights pioneer Billy Frank Jr. dies,” includes statements from Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, and Jeromy Sullivan, chairman of the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe.