Senate passes legislation to rename Nisqually Wildlife Refuge for Billy Frank Jr.

By:  Joel Connelly
Source: Seattle PI

The U.S. Senate on Monday passed the Billy Frank Jr., Tell Your Story Act, and sent to President Obama the legislation that will rename the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge after the late Indian fishing activist. The legislation, a brainchild of U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, D­Wash., a longtime friend of Frank, was cosponsored by the entire Washington State Congressional Delegation.

Henceforth, the refuge just north I­5 in the Nisqually River delta will be known as the Billy Frank Jr., Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. The National Park Service will take charge of the Medicine Creek Treaty National Memorial, site of the 1854 signing of the treaty that Frank used more than a century later to assure Native American fishing rights.

“Billy Frank Jr., just wanted to fish: He was a fisherman to his core, and that’s how he wanted history to remember him,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Senate sponsor of the legislation.  “Everyone who knew Billy would want us to remember him as the legend that walked — and fished — among us.”

Frank died in the spring of 2014.  He was recently posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.

Frank is much in the tradition of civil rights activists vilified in early days of their activism, but later honored in the arc of American history.  He was arrested more than 50 times for “illegal” fishing on the Nisqually River, where he grew up.  Only in 1974 did a seminal ruling by U.S. District Judge George Boldt say that treaty Indians were entitled to 50 percent of the salmon catch.

The Boldt decision was fiercely controversial:  A line of fishing boats tried to block a Coast Guard cutter carrying President Gerald Ford from a 1976 campaign rally on the Seattle waterfront.  But the decision was upheld by both the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Frank became a strong voice, uniting with former foes, championing restoration of his state’s decimated salmon runs.  The Nisqually Refuge became a centerpiece in the effort, as dikes were removed and a salt water estuary restored so salmon can grow up before heading to the Pacific.

By the end of his life, Frank was one of the region’s most recognized civil rights leaders and influential voices on the environment.

Weeks his death, U.S. Interior Sec. Sally Jewell and U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer listened as Billy Frank, Jr., spoke to a symposium in Suquamish.  Six thousand people, including Sens. Cantwell and Patty Murray,D-Wash., would attend his memorial service.

The Heck-Cantwell legislation wants this episode of Washington history to be told.  It provides for the Park Service to work with the Muckleshoot, Nisqually, Puyallup, and Squaxin Island tries to develop educational materials for the memorial.