Making Waves Conversations: David Troutt

Laura Blackmore, executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, speaks with David Troutt, natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe. In their conversation, they discuss salmon recovery, climate change, and moving I-5 off the Nisqually Delta. This interview was recorded on February 25, 2021.

Laura Blackmore: My name is Laura Blackmore and I’m the executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency formed to lead our region’s collective effort to protect and restore Puget Sound.

Our online magazine, Making Waves, features stories about the people working to protect and recover Puget Sound. For this issue of Making Waves, we’re holding a series of conversations with experts on themes related to Puget Sound recovery. These conversations include wide-ranging discussions about climate change, infrastructure and the environment, and environmental justice.

For this interview, I’m speaking with David Troutt, who has served as the natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe since 1987. He has been the chair of the Puget Sound Salmon Recovery Council since 2012 and has served on the Puget Sound Partnership’s Ecosystem Coordination Board since 2007. David also serves as chair of the Nisqually River Council and president of the Nisqually River Foundation.

In his role as the natural resources director for the Nisqually Indian Tribe, he heads a diverse department focused on salmon, shellfish, wildlife, and the environment in general. Throughout his career at the Nisqually Indian Tribe, he worked closely with the late Billy Frank Jr., the tireless advocate for tribal treaty rights and environmental stewardship.

He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington School of Fisheries, and he lives in Steilacoom with his wife and his sons.

Two little-known facts about David: He occasionally takes meetings from the wheelhouse of his boat, and he was twice included in Jay Leno’s top news headlines.

But a well-known fact about David is that he is a passionate advocate for salmon recovery and gives his heart to the work of protecting and restoring Puget Sound.

David, thank you so much for joining us today. For our conversation, we’re going to talk about the ways that infrastructure interacts with the environment, specifically with respect to salmon recovery and climate change. Are you ready?

David Troutt: I am ready and thank you for that lovely introduction. I’m glad to be with you and all the folks that are viewing.

Laura Blackmore: My first question is: a recent U.S. Geological Survey [USGS] study, paid for by the Nisqually Indian Tribe and the Washington State Department of Transportation [WSDOT], stated that the section of I-5 that crosses in the Nisqually River will soon be at risk of regular major flooding events. Sea level rise is also predicted to cause coastal squeezing, which will shrink the habitat available to salmon in the Nisqually River Delta. How are salmon affected by I-5 now and how do you think they’ll be affected in the future if we don’t make changes to that section of I-5?

David Troutt: Well, thank you for that question, Laura. It’s a complicated weaving of a bunch of different stories and to really fully understand it, we’ve got to go back a few years to when I-5 was built across the Nisqually Delta, originally on piers to allow the free movement of water upstream and downstream from the Nisqually River and McAllister Creek. But as a result of concerns and costs around maintenance of those structures, the Department of Transportation diked and filled in all of those elevated causeways across the Nisqually Delta, just leaving a handful of openings at the Nisqually River, at McAllister, and a couple of flood relief channels for the water to move upstream and downstream—and in essence, created a dam across the Nisqually Delta that has had major impacts on the environmental quantity and quality of habitat in the Nisqually, but also creates other kinds of concerns.

The I-5 crossing the Nisqually Delta is this intersection of a bunch of different interests, which certainly includes salmon and treaty rights, and things that depend on salmon, like Southern Resident killer whales, but also includes the local economies of the South Sound region. It includes communication lines that travel across the Nisqually River, under the Nisqually bridge, and certainly impacts national security issues with the potential overtopping and taking out of I-5 as a result of a major event.

Because of these connections and the importance of this crossing the delta, we were able to get the attention of the Washington State Legislature, a couple of biennia ago, to jointly fund WSDOT with tribal matching dollars to take a look at those risks and get a good assessment of what the chances are of these kinds of events occurring into the future, and also provide an understanding of the impact to salmon.

The impact to salmon is large, and it’s going on now and will go on to the future if things don’t change. The Nisqually Chinook are part of the ESA-listed stock of Puget Sound, and are vital for the recovery of the overall health of Puget Sound, and their survival is critical to that ESU recovery, the ecologically significant unit recovery.

The Nisqually Delta is absolutely vital habitat to Chinook salmon. They are estuary dependent, and they spend a lot of time as juveniles, up to six weeks, in the estuary, rearing and adapting to what will then become a saltwater environment from them existing as a freshwater animal. The transition there is really important, and they need space and time to be able to do that.

The Nisqually Tribe has led an effort over the last 20 years to fully restore the Nisqually Delta. We have 90 percent of the historic delta restored, and it’s providing fabulous fish habitat and producing things that support not only Nisqually Chinook, but Chinook from all around the region, and salmon and the ecosystem. These estuaries are the most incredible productive areas on earth, and so they’re incredibly important to the things that we care about.

What we’ve noticed as we’ve monitored our work down there, is that the conditions we hope to restore and re-establish are not developing as fast as we’d hoped, and some of the areas that we found to be absolutely critical to salmon survival are diminishing in scale, in terms of size and time of use, because of sea-level rise.

What would normally happen in a functioning estuary, without a dam across the middle of it, is that, as sea-level rise occurs, the habitats that are critical for fish would just naturally re-establish themselves upstream. So as that salt wedge moves further and further up the Nisqually River, if it weren’t blocked by the I-5 dam, the critical habitat for fish would just simply merge upstream with it—but because of that dam blocking upstream movement, the habitats that are critical for fish are becoming rarer.

There’s a particular habitat we’ve identified, this floodplain forested riparian habitat in the saltmarsh, where up to 80 percent of our wild fall Chinook will spend up to a month transitioning from that freshwater animal to a saltwater animal. It’s absolutely critical habitat.

What’s so perfect about this habitat is that it can go from freshwater salinity, on the surface, a zero salinity, to being Puget Sound water on the bottom within 12 feet. The fish get to choose where they want to be based on their time there and their ability to adjust. And as they make the slow change, they become more and more adapted to saltwater, and then eventually move out into Puget Sound and out to the ocean, and then come back in three and four and five years to the Nisqually River.

That first time where they’re in the Nisqually Delta, slowly adapting, is absolutely critical. What we’ve noticed is that it’s becoming deeper and more saline over time, because of sea-level rise and the inability of the habitat to adjust to the sea-level rise. The quality of the habitat is definitely changing, the ability of Nisqually fish to survive in those habitats will be impaired over time, and so it’s a critical factor for us.

There are also other connections that I mentioned earlier with the South Sound economy and national security. Thirty percent of the workforce of JBLM works in Thurston County and crosses the Nisqually River every day. It’s a major vital lifeline for connections between Seattle and Portland, and so our economy really depends on having that predictable transportation corridor.

What we’ve noticed in our work, the tribe’s work, in the last 15 years, is that there is this very unnatural situation developing just upstream from I-5, across from Billy Frank’s property, Frank’s Landing, and the Wa He Lut Indian school, where over time, the river has shifted and changed to the point where it’s now flowing upstream. And along a bend where all this energy is being directed in the wrong direction upstream, it’s very likely that that’s going to break through and, at some point, endanger I-5, probably taking out the north and southbound lanes for some prolonged period of time.

It’s also because of the dam structure blocking upstream movement of saltwater, it also impedes downstream movement of floodwaters. 10,000 acres or more of private properties, including tribal properties, were flooded in 1996, during our last major flood event, and the result was significant damage to private properties, and the water stayed for two weeks because there just isn’t proper drainage across that I-5 dam. It created significant harm to private property owners, including tribal members. All of these factors came together—to the legislature saying we’ve got to take a closer look at this and let’s really identify what the risks are.

That USGS study that you refer to in the question, has identified that, within the next 17 years, under the current rate of erosion and movement of the Nisqually River, it’s very likely to jump its channel and take out the north and southbound lanes of I-5. What the USGS was not able to determine was if we were to have a major avulsion event, a big-time flood, what the impact of that would be on the timing. And their concern is—and it’s shared by the tribe in moving forward with the study—is that that flood event, that major avulsion event, could happen tomorrow.

It could happen next week, with these atmospheric rivers that dump into the Puget Sound region, with long trains of clouds and storms from my homeland in Hawaii, dumping all that rain in the mountains, it’s just a matter of time.

It’s not if, but when, I-5 is going to be damaged by this. The work that we’re doing is to try to get ahead of that and to try to create a better environment for fish that protects treaty rights and Southern Resident killer whales. It’s also respective and responsible to the transportation needs and national security needs in the region. It’s a really unique project. It’s very exciting to be involved in it, and to have multiple players with different interests all pulling in the same direction. It’s just been a great project. That’s a lot.

Aerial photo of the Nisqually Delta. Photo credit: Kiliii Yuyan.

Laura Blackmore: How do you think we can make I-5 more compatible with the river ecosystem, the salmon life cycle, salmon habitat, and public safety?

David Troutt: That’s a great question and it just brings me back to many moments when I had a chance to spend time with Billy Frank [Jr.], my mentor and the tribal leader who hired me back at Nisqually in 1987.

He loved to go to this restaurant in Hawks Prairie called the Hawks Prairie Inn, and they were famous for their corned beef hash. They were also famous for using paper placemats, and Billy loved paper placemats. On the front side was the menu, but on the backside was just plain white paper, and he loved to draw and loved for us to draw for him.

I remember sitting there with him, having breakfast, and taking care of his young son, Willie Frank III, at the time, and Billy flipped over one of the placemats and said, “All right, I want you to describe for me…” This was in 1993 or ’94, well before the listings, well before salmon recovery really got moving with lots of momentum. He said, “I want you to describe for me the top five things we need to do in the Nisqually to restore habitat and to build our salmon runs.” We talked about the Nisqually Delta, and we talked about protecting the mainstem Nisqually, and restoring some of the habitat in the Mashel and the Ohop, but one of the projects that I put at the end of the list was this notion that we need to fix I-5.

We can do all the restoration we want in the delta, but if we don’t fix the crossing of the Nisqually Delta by I-5, it will likely be impacted and will not provide the function that we want. And Billy thought that was such a great project to take on, and immediately he ran to his vision and said, “David, what I want, I want you to draw this.” I am not good at drawing, but I tried my best.

“I want you to draw the Lion’s Gate Bridge from British Columbia that would span from JBLM all the way across the valley to Hawks Prairie, a high elevated bridge, that would be an engineering marvel and a tourist attraction and just a spectacular thing.” Billy’s vision was we need to lift it completely off the Nisqually Delta, from one bluff to the next, and that is certainly one of the options that we’ll be considering as we move forward through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process in the next couple years.

It’s likely to be incredibly expensive. I remember Billy and I talking about it at the time, in 1992 or ’93, and thinking it was probably around $10 billion. I would guess it’s probably double that now. Unless we can find $20 billion in our couch cushions, we’re probably going to have to find something that is a little more realistic in terms of costs, but still provides the function for fish.

Ultimately what we’re talking about is going back to the original design. Let’s go back to an elevated causeway across the Nisqually Delta, put it back on piers, allow for the river to move freely upstream and downstream, and allow the habitat to be restored.

Then the long-term vision, working with our partner at the now appropriately named Billy Frank Jr. National Wildlife Refuge, Glynnis Nakai, who’s the manager there and she’s just fabulous—we have a great partnership. Working with her to say, well, within the next 20 years, what we want is to relocate all of the structures from the wildlife refuge upstream, into the McAllister Valley, and allow all that habitat down there to be completely restored. Then create a distributary channel, through the Nisqually Valley, that would deliver sediment and fish into different spots within the estuary, and really create a fully functioning estuary in the Nisqually Delta that would be the prize of salmon recovery—but also the real centerpiece for our ability to educate the public and connect the public to the work that we’re doing.

That’s the long-term vision: fix I-5, relocate the refuge, and recreate natural conditions down there to support fish. But also with the ability to have transportation go through, maybe expand the lanes of I-5, maybe put in a light rail for the Sounder eventually to come down into Thurston County, and do it all at once. Let’s just get it all done while we’re doing it, and I just think it’s a great project.

Laura Blackmore: All right. Have you drawn this one?

David Troutt: We have some preliminary drawings, although we’re going to have to get serious and have some engineers do it, because my chicken scratch just isn’t high quality enough to build a bridge by. But we have some ideas, and it really will depend to some extent on the monies available to us. Creating causeways is expensive, especially when you have the current condition to have to deal with, but our back-of-the-envelope calculations are somewhere between $3 billion and $5 billion, depending on how much we need to do. And if there’s a desire to do lane expansion on I-5, that would drive the cost up closer to the $5 billion number.

Aerial photo of the Nisqually Delta. Photo credit: Kiliii Yuyan.

Laura Blackmore: Speaking of that, thinking big about I-5, in what ways do you think our use of infrastructure needs to change throughout the Puget Sound region to contribute to salmon recovery and account for the risks posed by climate change?

David Troutt: I think that there’s a large role that our infrastructure can play in supporting habitat functions. And as this region continues to grow, if we have another two million people moving into Puget Sound, we’re undoubtedly going to have to be building new roads and repairing existing roads. We need to be building these in a way that are much more fish-friendly and have, as part of the outcome from the construction of these infrastructure pieces, improvements in the environmental quality and quantity of the area.

We’re working with WSDOT to use this I-5 crossing as a model for how you can deal with things like transportation, national security, and salmon recovery treaty rights with a transportation project that just doesn’t mitigate for its footprint, but at the end of the day creates a condition that was much better than when it started. That’s where I think we need to be going as a region.

Let’s have as our goal, as we learned in national parks and with our kids, to leave it better than you found it. Let’s have that be our goal for all major capital projects in Puget Sound region: leave the area they’re in better than when they found it. With new construction and replacement of capital infrastructure, I think that makes a lot of sense.

We’ve got to be forward thinking and forward leaning about climate change and making sure that what we build today makes sense in 20 and 50 and 100 years. That’s why it’s going to be important to elevate roadways across a lot of these wetlands and streams. We also need to be thinking about the inputs that are coming off of the roads from our vehicles, and our lives, and how those are things are impacting salmon.

Being creative and providing for new kinds of treatment opportunities for stormwater, to deal with things like the tire dust—which has just been elevated to a major concern, through the science of the University of Washington and WSU, to indicate that it is killing coho. And it doesn’t take much of it, or a very long exposure to it, to kill these fish. It’s coming off our roads every time it rains. We need to be retrofitting all of our roadways to make sure we can treat these toxic issues.

Then finally, I would say, as we’re investing a tremendous amount of money in infrastructure, and I mentioned, for example, the Nisqually project maybe $5 billion, maybe, by the time we get to construction, maybe $6 or $7 billion, that’s a lot of money. One of the ideas that we’re pursuing at Nisqually is that all of these major public investments of taxpayer dollars should include, as a newly defined mitigation requirement, an improved environmental baseline.

I think the one way to accomplish that would be to say, for every major capital project, we’re going to set aside 3 percent of the budget of that project for this newly defined mitigation. A lot of that work should occur and will occur on or near the location of the project itself. But if we’re able to generate enough money, we could really reach out to effect habitats that may be somewhat distant from the project but would have significant benefits to those populations that are impacted by the project.

For example, with the Seattle tunnel that went through, if I remember correctly, it was about $5 billion—that seems to be a popular number for big road projects. If you were to take 3 percent of that and apply it to this improved-conditions mitigation standard, that’d be $150 million to be able to work with. That’s the kind of money we have never seen in the salmon recovery world, in a single year, to do the work that needs to get done. If we’re going to be successful, in the face of a growing population and a booming economy that are all putting stresses on our natural environment and stresses on the salmon that we love so much, we’re going to have to invest in it in a significant way to protect it—or we’re going to lose it. We can see the pathway in front of us. We see we’re at the fork in the road, and the choice is ours and it’s time to choose. By not choosing, by not doing anything, by maintaining the status quo, that is a choice.

We’re advocating that we make an aggressive choice. Let’s truly pay for the cost of being here and living here and growing here by protecting the things that we love so much. Some connection to our public investment in these capital projects—whether it be roadways or stormwater facilities or new drinking water facilities or wastewater treatment facilities—those are all big taxpayer investments. Let’s tap those to redefine mitigation, to provide a better place at the end of the day than it was at the beginning of the day. Those are the things we’re pursuing here at Nisqually that I think have a bigger regional impact if we’re successful.

Laura Blackmore: Pretty amazing. I am wondering, given the scope of your vision, the big transformative nature of those ideas, what gives you hope, as you think about the work that is in front of us over the next 10 to 20 years, that we will actually make those choices, not the status quo choice, but the transformative choice.

David Troutt: That’s a great question. I guess there are some things out there that definitely give me hope. One of the things that gives me hope are the salmon themselves. They are just absolutely incredible animals. They can hatch in the river, migrate downstream into Puget Sound, out into the ocean, spend three, four or five—maybe six years—out there, migrate all the way back, find the exact place where they were born three, four, five, six years ago, and do it all over again. They do it by using the stars and by using their nose and by internal compasses—they’re incredible animals. What we’ve learned, if we just give them a chance, they’ll survive. In spite of ourselves, they’ll survive. It won’t take much for us to make a difference and have salmon survive with us. We just have to be willing to make that difference. The fish themselves give me hope.

Recently we’re watching the news and we’re seeing all these great amazing shots come back from Mars. And the ability for us to get to Mars, multiple times successfully—and not just us, but other countries and private companies and just people—to be able to go that far and do science and come back, it’s a remarkable achievement. If we can do that, there is no reason why we can’t figure out how to live in Puget Sound and have salmon with us.

I know the people in this region care a lot about Puget Sound and care a lot about salmon. I know that they want to do the right thing. And if given the opportunity, will do the right thing. That gives me a lot of hope as well. I think people are part of the challenge that we have to overcome, but they’re also the solution if we’re going to make progress in this. Those kinds of things give me hope.

Laura Blackmore: For those people who do want to do the right thing, who do want to get involved, what would you recommend?

David Troutt: I think there’s lots of ways for citizens to get involved. If they want to get out and get their feet wet and their hands dirty, every one of our watersheds has groups that are working in the field, revegetating forest, and working on salmon restoration projects—and are always looking for volunteers, even in this time of COVID.

Our Nisqually Land Trust just had a big planting project this past weekend. We had 45 volunteers show up, and they were socially distanced and masked up, and it was rainy, but they were out there planting trees because it was important for them, it was something that was significant for them and their family to do. Opportunities to get in the watershed and be participating in those things directly.

I think if that’s not what’s in it for you, then I think there are opportunities to let the leaders in the region know what’s important to you. By reaching out to your city councils and your county councils and your state elected officials and your federal elected officials—and tell them salmon’s important. We need to figure this out, we need to be here together, we need your help in doing this. That could be a major role in us all being successful.

Whether it’s getting your hands wet or typing emails on your computer to your local elected officials, there are lots of ways for folks to get involved and make a difference. That’s what’s really important—is making that difference.

Aerial photo of the Nisqually Delta. Photo credit: Kiliii Yuyan.

Laura Blackmore: I agree. What would you say are the most significant lessons that you’ve learned in your time working toward environmental recovery and environmental justice?

David Troutt: Well, I think the lessons I’ve learned were taught to me by Billy [Frank Jr.], and he was the most incredible person I’ve ever met, for a number of reasons.

One is that he spent a lifetime fighting the system, and fighting for his treaty rights, and going to jail 56 times, and ultimately prevailing in the federal courts in 1974 with the Boldt Decision. Then he realized that it was time to do something different. Then it was time to get the people together and get the tribes together and get all our communities together to do something about fish.

This was 1977 and he was already talking about salmon recovery in 1977. He knew how to shift gears. That’s one of the most important lessons that I learned from Billy—was that there is definitely a time to fight, but there’s always a time to try to reach out to your neighbors and build coalitions and build families that care about salmon, and get them out there and do something about it. Understanding when that time is, and the time is now, to build these coalitions is really important.

The other thing, and it’s come through a lot of time on the Nisqually, working a lot of projects—I’m thinking back to dealing with the Braget family, and making sure that the family needs were met as we were talking about buying their land, to convert it back to the Nisqually estuary functioning habitats that we needed for fish—that it takes a long time. It takes a lot of cups of coffee. It takes personal relationships to get these things done. You don’t just walk into a farmer’s door and say, “I want to buy your property. How much? Let’s write a check.” That’s not going to last long. You’re not even going to get to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.

But spending some time with them, and learning who they are, and understanding why they’re there, and then trying to find a path forward that solves their issues and accomplishes their goals as well as yours. The Braget one is such a great example—it took 15 years to negotiate with Ken and his mom, until she passed, to build a relationship where they trusted us enough to sell it to us, because it had been in their family for over a hundred years.

In return, we knew exactly what Ken wanted. Ken wanted to spend his life on the land and die on his farm, being a farmer. We created a life estate for him, and he eventually did unfortunately pass on, but he did it in his house on his farm. He was so proud of the work that we’d done, that he said, a number of times, that he went from growing cows to growing fish. He really reveled in that role as a steward of the land. Land that he had stewarded all his life, but now in a different way. Patience and perseverance and knowing when to bring communities and people together are great lessons I’ve learned, and I think would serve others well as well.

Laura Blackmore: That is a fabulous story. I wonder, David, speaking of Billy Frank Jr., who I was fortunate to meet, but only once, if he were here today what do you think he would say to us?

David Troutt: Well, Billy always liked to say that salmon recovery is like climbing a mountain. You have to do it one step at a time and you have to keep moving. He recognized, in the 70s, he recognized throughout his life, that it’s a long journey and it’s going to be a struggle. I think he would look around now and see some of the work that we’ve done here at Nisqually and some of the work that the Partnership’s had a role in playing—he was so proud of the Partnership and his involvement there—and some of the work that all the communities up and down Puget Sound and in Hood Canal have done, and I think he’d be proud of all that work and all the community building that we’ve all done around salmon.

But I think he’d be frustrated. He’d be frustrated in watching that when I started in 1987, we were fishing 105 days out of the year sustainably, as we have been for generations before. In 2015, we fished eight days.

He would be incredibly frustrated that we’re not going fast enough and that the treaty rights that he fought so hard for, that he went to jail for, that many of his family died for, were not being honored in a significant way. Our intentions are good, but if we don’t have the support of the full region, if we don’t have the resources necessary to get the job done, it just makes that mountain a lot taller and our steps a lot smaller. I think he would be proud and happy, but also frustrated and motivated to keep walking up that mountain.

Laura Blackmore: I think he’d be proud of you, David, for continuing to tell the truth. Tell your story. I take that to heart, the importance of telling the truth.

David Troutt: You’re going to make me cry.

Laura Blackmore: What’s the last thing you read that you really enjoyed or that stuck with you?

David Troutt: That’s a really good question. There’s a new book that just came out, by a friend of mine who’s an author in the Nisqually Valley. I’m trying to find it so I can give you the title of it. It’s all about the development of the Nisqually Valley and all the families involved, including the Braget family. It really is around Ken Braget and his mom—it’s called For the Good of the Order. Tim Ransom is the author, a good friend of mine, and it’s fabulous. He does a great job of telling the history of the Nisqually Valley that I didn’t know.

I’ve learned so much reading it and have reconnected with some of the players that passed, that I knew, and including Kenny, and just reading this book has brought back Kenny’s voice into my ear—Kenny had a very distinctive voice—and also the sound of his shotgun, which he liked to shoot a lot when you were nearby at his house. That’s the book that I just recently completed, and I highly recommend to anyone else. It’s impactful for those of us who work and love the Nisqually, which should be everybody.

Laura Blackmore: That’s right. Isn’t it the center of the universe, David?

David Troutt: It is indeed the center of the known universe. I got [Washington State Representative] Steve Tharinger, in a committee meeting about two weeks ago, to admit that the Nisqually is the center of the known universe.

Laura Blackmore: We won’t tell his constituents. David, I appreciate this so much. I appreciate you taking the time to join us today and share your story with us, your insights, and the great work that you do. I look forward to supporting your work to fix I-5, get it off the Nisqually Delta, prevent massive flood, and save some fish. Thank you so much.

David Troutt: Thank you very much, Laura. Thank you for your work and your agency’s work and building partnerships, because it really is about partnerships if we’re going to get things done. And I’m so proud to be working with you, and all your staff, and the great work you do together, so thank you.

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Making Waves is the Puget Sound Partnership’s online magazine. Making Waves features stories from the people protecting and restoring Puget Sound.