Farron McCloud fondly remembers how, in his youth, local soldiers would visit the Nisqually tribe every Christmas Eve.
“Of course, they’d bring out a Santa but most of them were all in their fatigues, and they’d pass out presents to us native youth,” recalled the 59-year-old chairman of the Nisqually Tribal Council.
“That was huge back then because that was about all we got. We’d have a little dinner, and our elders would be there, but that’s what I remember growing up.”
His tribe and the military historically have gotten along, McCloud said, but an Army proposal to explore test-firing an artillery rocket system at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near the Nisqually reservation has brought tension in an otherwise strong relationship.
And it’s been aggravated by a series of schedule changes, including at least two canceled tests — the most recent set for the same day the Nisqually Wildlife Refuge was renamed in honor of the late Billy Frank Jr., a prominent tribe member and famed environmental advocate.
The M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, better known as HIMARS, is a truck-mounted guided missile system that can hit targets up to 185 miles away.
American troops are using the system in the war against Islamic State militants and have used HIMARS to strike targets in Iraq and Syria in support of U.S.-backed forces.
Traditionally, the JBLM-based 17th Field Artillery Brigade has trained on the system at the Yakima Training Center. But moving artillery systems and troops across the Cascades is a major logistical endeavor. Moving some of the training to JBLM could save money.
But first, the Army needs to conduct noise tests using reduced-range, unarmed practice rockets to see how it would affect the surrounding community and wildlife.
The community isn’t happy about it.
McCloud said noise from training at JBLM typically isn’t a problem. It’s something he grew up with, and something they’re accustomed to as their reservation is tucked between different parts of the large military installation.
“The Nisqually Indian Tribe, as (the base) grew and grew and grew, have adjusted to it. It’s a fact of life,” McCloud said.
But HIMARS, which is known to give off sonic booms, is different, he said.
When the Nisqually learned about the proposal, the tribal council unanimously opposed it.
“We couldn’t understand why they would come from a desert where there’s no population to move it back here to a populated area where the main ones affected is the Nisqually Reservation” McCloud said. “We couldn’t understand that and we still don’t understand that.”
The noise test initially was set for March. The tribe worked with JBLM officials to get the word out.
“We had informational dinners. We sent out fliers. We got prepared. We were ready,” McCloud said.
The tribe decided to set up activities for tribal elders, veterans and youths that would take place off the reservation during the three days of testing.
The tribe arranged for activities at Quinault Resort for 51 elders. It also arranged to close its Head Start and day care for about 166 children. The tribe bought movie tickets, food for events and paid for visits to the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia.
“We set this all up, we had about a month to do it,” McCloud said.
He estimated that between all the plans and arrangements the tribe spent about $80,000.
But the day before the test, McCloud got a call that informed him the tests was being postponed. Though the tribe was against the testing, it wasn’t particularly welcome news after so much planning.
“There was no way for us to pull back with all the things we set up,” McCloud said. “It was already in place. They’re not going to refund nothing.”
The last-minute cancellation came down to terrain factors. The Army had underestimated how much the thick vegetation of Western Washington would affect the operation of the weapon system.
“The firings were delayed because an important safety feature on the HIMARS vehicle alerted to insufficient tree-top clearance at the firing point,” explained Joe Piek of the JBLM Public Affairs Office in an email to The News Tribune.
At the time, 1 acre of trees had been removed from the proposed firing point. Since then, JBLM has removed about 10 acres of trees and sold them as part of a timber sale.
“By law, 40 percent of the net proceeds from timber sales on JBLM goes to Pierce and Thurston counties to support schools and roads,” Piek added.
Military officials rescheduled the testing, and proposed a new date of July 19. But there was another problem. That was the day of the Billy Frank Jr. ceremony, which was marked by ancient tradition and attended by thousands of guests from all around the country. Army officials didn’t know of the event when they set the new date.
McCloud said a rocket noise test during the ceremony would have been untenable for the tribe.
He said elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D-Olympia, stepped in to have the date changed. Spokeswoman Kati Rutherford confirmed to The News Tribune that Heck had discussed concerns about the date with military officials.
The noise test now is tentatively set for October, with no specific date nailed down.
“When a definitive date has been set for the test firing, and all conditions have been set so the rockets can be fired safely and accurately, we will announce this to the communities surrounding JBLM,” Piek said.
McCloud expressed frustration about the uncertainty.
“We haven’t met with them. I’m sure we will, to get that date,” he said. “My concern is now, do we do all of this again? Do I set this all up for our elders again? Am I going to have $80,000 in my budget again?”
However, he stressed that while the HIMARS test has been a “damper” on the relationship between the Nisqually and JBLM, it’s something that they will work through.
He said that to his knowledge, it’s the only major negative issue the tribe and JBLM have had in years. He expressed hope that they can work closer together for the next proposed test.
“The relationship with JBLM is still very positive, I got to let that out,” McCloud said. “We have to continue working together, because we’re neighbors who aren’t going anywhere.”