To reporters in Western Washington, Billy Frank Jr. was the
essential interview when it came to reporting on fish and shellfish
Billy Frank Jr. greets Interior
Secretary Sally Jewell in Suquamish.
Kitsap Sun photo by Rachel Anne Seymour
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.
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
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.
Martha Kongsgaard’s full tribute to Billy Frank.
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
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