Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Time to talk about Frank Herbert’s ‘Dune,’ our slag heap

Science fiction writer Frank Herbert is shown in 1978. The author of the “Dune” series, who formerly lived in Tacoma, died in 1986.
Science fiction writer Frank Herbert is shown in 1978. The author of the “Dune” series, who formerly lived in Tacoma, died in 1986. Associated Press file

So, about that park honoring famous Tacoman Frank Herbert ...

You remember that idea, right? It was all the rage back in 2013, based on naming a soon-to-be-restored slag heap in Puget Sound left behind by the Asarco smelter after the late author of “Dune” and the popular science fiction series that followed it.

Since its publication in 1965, “Dune” has become part of the sci-fi canon. But its appeal is even broader. My wife, for example, isn’t exactly a fan of the genre, but she loves Herbert’s “Dune.”

She’s not alone.

Especially, it seems, in Tacoma.

Two years ago former Tacoma Landmarks Commissioner Daniel Rahe and Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg got the ball rolling on the idea of naming the slag heap in honor of Herbert. Rahe convinced his fellow commissioners to endorse the idea, and Hanberg wrote about Herbert’s connection to Tacoma for PostDefiance.com.

An online petition was also launched, eventually collecting close to 800 signatures.

Before this point, most Tacomans didn’t realize Herbert — whose literary work not only captivated a legion of devoted readers, but also inspired a generation of environmentalists — was born in the City of Destiny and later returned to be married here. Herbert, it turns out, was heavily influenced by watching the Asarco smelter pollute the Tacoma skyline in the 1950s, an experience that contributed to the conservation themes of “Dune.”

Then some guy named Peter Callaghan (never heard of him) penned a couple columns in The News Tribune in support of the plan.

Boom. Next thing you know, the prospect of Tacoma naming a park after Herbert was getting national attention. Fans in Tacoma and from across the country rallied in support. Geeks and non-geeks united for a cause.

Then things got complicated.

The “park” in question — which Metro parks has taken to referring to as the “park on the peninsula” — was a long way from opening, for starters, and the uproar caught some at Metro Parks off guard. And the land, as it turned out, was technically part of the already established Point Defiance Park, which made naming it in honor of Herbert – as a park of its own — more difficult than some expected.

Most of all, opening the space to the public is part of the Destination Point Defiance project, a massive undertaking that includes construction of a Tacoma stormwater treatment facility. Thanks to voters’ approval of a 2014 capital bond, it also includes things like a new Pacific Rim aquarium and an elevated walkway connecting Ruston Way with Point Defiance Park.

“Waterfront Phase I” of the endeavor started July 6.

It’s what Metro Parks spokesman Michael Thompson describes as a “complex project” with a lot of moving parts.

And so, for the last two years, the idea of affixing Herbert’s name to the slag heap — which will be reborn as park land and is scheduled to open in 2017 — has been left to marinate.

But this year marks the 50th anniversary of “Dune,” so it’s as good a time as any to revisit the conversation.

I called Hanberg first, to get the lowdown on where things stand. Apparently I wasn’t the first person to have the idea. He told me that, with the book’s anniversary on people’s minds, he’s been fielding inquiries on the subject lately.

“Clearly people have still been thinking about it,” Hanberg says. “There was much wider support than I expected. ... (The idea) exploded in a way I don’t think anyone saw coming.”

That excitement still simmers, according to Post Defiance founder and co-managing editor Katy Evans. She cites evidence such as the annual Frank Herbert birthday celebration at Hilltop Kitchen, which includes a menu of “Dune”-inspired cocktails crafted by bar owner Christopher Keil. October will mark the event’s third year.

“It makes me really hopeful,” Evans says of the continued community support for honoring Herbert in his hometown.

But she acknowledges that it will take a continued drumbeat to see the idea come to fruition, and some of the magic of 2013 will likely need to be rekindled.

The good news is that Melissa McGinnis, Metro Parks’ historic and cultural resources manager, confirms that naming a park after Herbert “fits within the district’s policies.” She says that when it’s time for the public process that will decide what we call the area, Herbert’s name will “be in the mix.” (The executive director and park board will make the decision.)

Still, according to Thompson, the public process of naming the park isn’t likely to start until early 2017.

“You are way ahead of the curve in naming that park,” Metro Parks Board President Tim Reid told me via email when I asked about the public process.

True, but you know what they say:

The early bird gets the sandworm.

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