Port of Tacoma, Puyallup Tribe work to strengthen relationship

Port of Tacoma Commissioner John McCarthy.
Port of Tacoma Commissioner John McCarthy. Courtesy Port of Tacoma

An agreement signed 30 years ago settled many long-standing disputes over land and set in place the framework still used today to bring prosperity and opportunity to the Pierce County community.

In 1988, after nearly four years of difficult, thoughtful negotiation, the Puyallup Tribe, the Port of Tacoma, the federal government and local governments, as well as businesses and individuals, came together in a comprehensive settlement over land ownership, jurisdictions, fisheries issues and future opportunities.

Despite decades of barriers and competing interests, all sides ultimately accepted the land claims settlement, including the Puyallup Tribe, who voted for it 319 to 162.

It was historic. At the time, it was the largest American Indian land claim settlement in the lower 48 states at a cost of $162 million, with a large financial payment from the U.S. government as well as cash, valuable land and other concessions by others.

All parties compromised and overcame decades of cultural barriers and different perspectives to reach a resolution that would bring prosperity to our mutual community and start a new era of cooperation.

I became a Port of Tacoma commissioner in late 1983. Many of us at the port sought to change the culture of our organization to open the discussion and start negotiation.

Ultimately, I became the port’s commission representative for the negotiations, and I know firsthand the claims, passions, positions and history of our successful effort.

Looking back over the past 30 years, I have watched with admiration as the tribe has flourished in many respects. Tribal membership has grown to more than 2,400.

Their gaming enterprises generate millions of dollars per year and employ hundreds of people. The Emerald Queen Casino is one of the largest employers in Pierce County. The tribe has established a vast economic base and cemented the future of its people.

Over the same period, the port has also flourished, providing thousands of family-wage jobs. We and other property owners have enjoyed certainty about our lands and clearer jurisdictional boundaries.

The port continues to be the economic engine of our region as a major employer in Pierce County. In addition, communities around the state and country rely on the port for their economic success.

I left the port commission to serve as a judge for more than 22 years. During that time, I watched from the outside as the consultation process between the tribe, port and other entities failed to live up to the intended goal.

Most recently, the port’s desire to fuel ships calling at its terminals with a cleaner-burning LNG fuel has met with objection from many tribal members, reviving questions about how and when formal consultation should occur.

Clearly the work we started over 30 years ago is not done and both sides have not tended our critical relationship.

Regardless, the port is not going anywhere and neither is the tribe. With respectful dialogue, honest discussion and an open acknowledgement of the value of each organization to the community at large, we can be successful.

On March 13, tribal council members and port commissioners met to a discuss an auto-processing facility proposed for the former Kaiser site. This meeting provided the opportunity for us to renew our commitment to find a productive path forward.

As the first line of the settlement attests to: “This agreement establishes a framework for cooperation and a mutually beneficial future for the community.”

We need to build upon the framework we negotiated 30 years ago to reset our relationship so that we can sustain our mutual economic success for future generations.

John McCarthy was elected to the Port of Tacoma Commission in 2017.