This Women’s History Month, we are excited to get to know more about an amazing woman who has made her career by working to conserve and restore fish habitat on the Olympic Peninsula. LaTrisha Suggs is currently the Restoration Planner for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, which recently partnered with the Land Trust on the purchase of 104 acres of farmland and habitat along the Dungeness River. In the very near future, the Tribe will be initiating a project to set back the existing levee, creating more room for the river to meander along its natural floodplain and providing improved habitat for fish and other wildlife. In addition to her work as a restoration planner, LaTrisha sits on three Tribal boards, is a City of Port Angeles Council member, a mother of three and grandmother of two. We sat down with LaTrisha to learn more about what her incredible work means to her (and how she balances it all!)…
How has your experience as a tribal member influenced your career choices?
My career choice was not in relation to my cultural heritage. My career choices was a logical choice I made when I returned to the area in 1998. I was working at State Farm Insurance for a local agent. My job could not financially support me and my son financially. I had an Associate of Science degree from Westminster Community College in Colorado and made just over $8 per hour. In 1999 a customer told me that Peninsula College had a new Bachelors program in Environmental Policy and Planning. I knew that I needed the education to eventually lead to financially stability for me and my son. I enrolled, found funding, and transferred my grades from Westminster to PC so I could enroll in the program. I liked science classes, such as micro-biology, chemistry, and geology, which influenced my logical reaction to enroll in the program.
You worked for almost 16 years with the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe on the dam removal project on the Elwha River – what did this project mean to you?
It was an honor to work on a superior environmental restoration project. The project broke the glass ceiling on the idea that hydro-electric dams have a lifespan. This was not a concept many accepted, because it is easier to say that dams last forever. Once all entities were on board for dam removal, the project set a new precedent in the United States. It also encouraged future discussions of dam removal throughout the United States and I am proud to say I was part of that process that set that precedent. Working to protect, preserve and restore our watershed to provide vital habitat for land and aquatic wildlife survival is not taken lightly. This is where my heritage influences my drive to protect treaty resources that are protected in the Point-no-Point Treaty. Salmon are a way of life in the Pacific Northwest for Coast Salish people. Salmon are in our written and oral stories, and salmon are part of our traditions. Salmon people, first salmon ceremony, smoked salmon, dried salmon, strong returns equals healthy watershed, totem poles, copper salmon artwork, heart healthy natural oils. The project allowed me to work under strong Native Leaders, such as Robert Elofson, Billy Frank Jr, Bob Anderson (Biden Administration, Principal Interior Solicitor), former NW Region BIA Director Stanley Speaks, Brian Winter, Russ Busch (former LEKT legal counsel), former Congressman Norm Dicks, Adeline Sampson and Bea Charles, Senator Cantwell and Senator Murray, and Barbara Lane and Karen James (ethnographer). These are just a few of the people I was lucky to work with and learn from.
What do you see as the impact of the dam removal on the local conservation/restoration community? What about the impact on the broader world of conservation and restoration?
The project has provided hope to the people/community of the Pacific Northwest, who have fought to protect the rights of nature. We are a community that places value in the natural world. We place value in a healthy watershed, which is provides for economic opportunities within a healthy watershed. The hope that the fate of our natural environment is in our hands no matter how small you may be. The Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, with a membership of just over a 1,000 people, stood steadfast in their goal of dam removal. The idea moved from sarcasm, to internal casual conversation, and then bold statements, and then into advocacy and then challenged in court when the dam license for the Elwha dam was to renew and that the Glines Canyon Dam remained unlicensed in a National Park. The Tribe showed the community how to be BOLD when it came to environmental restoration.
As for conservation the world will be watching to see how successful dam removal is which will gage future possibilities like the removal of the four dams on the Snake River. The world can now talk about dam removal as an option.
Now, as the Restoration Planner for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, how do you see restoration moving forward in our region?
Working for the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, of which I am a Tribal Citizen, has allowed me to transition from the Elwha River that has flows that reach up to 20,000 cfs (flooding) to possible low flows of 216 cfs during the dry summer months to the Dungeness River with flows from 1980 cfs (flooding) to possible low flow of 116 cfs (dry summer months). The two rivers have extremely different flows but are both vital fish bearing streams that provide habitat for salmon that are listed as threatened. Depending upon funding, I will continue to work with willing landowners to purchase property along the Dungeness River that have been identified as vital salmon habitat and within the channel migration zone (CMZ). The Tribe has acquired 220.5 acres along the Dungeness, and I hope that with available funding we will be able to acquire all the parcels we identified as vital salmon habitat. It is less expensive to preserve healthy habitat, compared to restoring contaminated areas or allowing variant permits that may result in hard armoring along the Dungeness to protect homes build in the channel migration zone. I will also have the opportunity to help administer restoration projects such as the Rivers Edge Project, which is the setback of .9 miles of the levee. The RE project is in concert with the Clallam County Levee Setback project.
The Land Trust and the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe recently partnered on a very successful (and ongoing) project at River’s Edge, what were your takeaways from that process?
The Tribe and Land Trust partnered on the McLane Wallacker Acquisition and Brown Acquisition. This project was brought forward to the Tribe from the Land Trust, who had been in talks with the landowners and the talks turned toward a partnership with JST. This was a one of a kind, and first for me. I had completed a few land acquisition projects, that were pretty basic, compared to this project. When I first heard about the concept my mind was racing trying to understand the terminology and timeline of getting from point A to point D. I understood the significance of the project, as this idea of setting back the levee and acquiring property was identified in 1997 by the Dungeness River Restoration Work Group document titled “Recommended Restoration Projects for the Dungeness River.”
What is your favorite part of your work?
After working on the Dam Removal project, I knew anything was possible it was just setting out the details of what steps need to happen first. The River’s Edge project really challenged by abilities as I was new to land acquisition and RCO grants. There were many moving parts, and the best part was that I had a great team that surrounded me to help guide me in determining what needed to happen and in what order. Another favorite part was when the Title company filed the acquisition documents and the Tribe and NOLT owned their specific portions of land purchased.
What are the challenges that you face balancing your career with family life?
There are many challenges for a single mom of three kids. My kids ages are 28 yrs old, 15 yrs old, and 9 years old. I have two grandkids that are 8 yrs old and almost 2 years old. As a single mom I not only have the challenge to prove I can do my job and not let my family life interfere with my job. In addition I serve my Tribe sitting on 3 boards (Health board, Economic Development Authority Board Member, Cannabis Committee) for Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe. Two of the boards meet quarterly, and one board has met monthly. My challenge is making sure I am efficient with my time and recently I have declined invites to participate in committees. Spreading yourself too thin is a challenge. Everything I do at work and on my boards for my Tribe is in addition to being a single mom, taxi driver, housekeeper, and making sure that we maintain doctor appointments, complete auto maintenance, maintain upkeep of my home, and during the pandemic I have also become a teacher/mentor/coach requiring me to make sure my daughters keep up with their classwork, attend google meets while understanding/comprehending the information being taught. I do delegate math instruction to a tutor, who has been part of my circle for the girls. It is not easy, especially during COVID, as it is more of a mental challenge. One item that has made life easier and more efficient is the implementation of online meetings.
What are the challenges and rewards that you have experienced serving as a member of local City government? How has this experience affected your perspective on the community?
One Challenge is being efficient with time, there is a lot of information that needs to be reviewed and understood. I balance my time between, work, city, family, and committees. Some days there is not enough time in the day to complete everything that I feel needs to be completed. Another challenge has been proper use of Roberts Rules-of-Order, and use of proper terminology and how it is implemented. Another challenge is the balance between wanting to meet all the needs of everyone that sends an email identifying issues in their community, but knowing that due to limited funds you can’t do everything so you have to prioritize and making those decision on what is the priority.
The reward being on City Council is that I am giving back to my community, this is my public service. I have been lucky that I qualified for state pell grants allowing me to reach my educational goals. Being on City Council is one way I can show and provide service to my community expressing gratitude to my community. This experience has shown me that there are many dedicated people and organizations in our community that are quietyly working behind the scenes for the benefit of this wonderful city of ours. It is a team effort.
I have always believed that Port Angeles was the best place to grow up in and that this is where I belonged. This community is amazing, my perspective has not changed. However, what has changed is that I am more aware that our community like others have a vulnerable population and that there are so many compassionate people working to try to help this population obtain services that improves their life, but that there is no one solution. I believe compassion will be the solution.
How (if at all) does the role of women within the tribal community differ from the role of women in the broader regional community?
There are many strong women in the Tribal communities, I see strong women leaders in Jamestown, Elwha, Quinault, and Makah. I think one difference is that women have longer life spans then the men in the community which resulted in women being pushed into open positions of leadership. Women tend to outnumber men in communities. Tribal community populations are smaller than surrounding communities which result in stronger ties between families and people. The environment has allowed for women to step into leadership roles. But leadership roles in a Tribal community are integrated into every fabric/layer of a Tribal organization, there are women leaders that focus on culture, environment, social services, health, elder care, artist, mother/auntie, and tribal administration/government. There is not one position more important then others. Each a celebration to the testament of the compassion within the Tribal community of all the women leaders stepping up to fill all roles in hopes that the youth will follow in their footsteps.
Over your lifetime and career in Clallam County, what changes have you experienced in the community attitude toward conservation and restoration?
The changes that I have experienced in my life time is that there has been a decrease in environmental habitat while the built environment has increased. I think the attitudes toward conservation has been like a roller coaster ride. My first memory is the spotted owl conflict that significantly impacted one of the main industries of our community. Many people working in the logging industry lost jobs and it was the first time our community had to balance environmental protection and industry. Salmon fishing and recreational fishing were feeling the impacts of declining salmon runs, In 1974 Judge Bolt said that the Tribes were to be co-managers with the State of Washington of the fisheries resources and that Tribes reserved ½ the harvestable amount. Residents of Washington State were not open to this ruling, and Judge Bolt temporarily relocated to Washington State to make sure that his ruling was implemented. In the 70’s Tribal fishermen were shot at by WDFW and non-natives, their gear would be vandalized, stolen, or confiscated. In 2021 people have become educated that Tribes are co-managers and there is not as much anger and violence toward Native Americans for carrying out their reserved right to fish. In 1989 the community had a strong vocal group that fought against dam removal on the Elwha Dam. Congressman Dicks often recalled when he was newly elected he entered a townhall meeting in the city gym and even before he reached the front of the room with his one staff person he said someone jumped up and said out loud “Lets show Congressman Dicks how many people do not support dam removal,” and he said that everyone in the room stood up. Due to public outreach/education the community began to understand the benefits of dam removal and public approval increased significantly by 2011.
In 2021, I believe the attitude towards environmental conservation and restoration has increased significantly. I say this because jurisdictions have developed guiding documents like the Shoreline Master Plan, a sub-committee was established to focus on climate change, PA climate resiliency plan development, 2019 Comprehensive Plan includes chapters to guide conservation/open space which includes a vision that identify the important role the environment plays.
The Association of Washington Cities made amendments to the AWC State Policy, adopted at the June 2020 business meeting. The changes tasked AWC with being “balanced and bold” in working to support efforts of environmental stewardship given that “ecological improvements are coming too slowly for species vital to Washington State.” This idea was raised by me at the AWC business meeting and when voting on the changes by AWC participants, there was 67% that approved the recommended changes to the environmental policy statement which lead to inclusion of being bold but acknowledging improvements are coming too slowly. This discussion at AWC that No-Net loss was not bold enough, that we need to promote “net ecological gain” eventually became a talking point in 2020 by representatives from the environmental committee which brought forward a far-reaching proposal to change the goal of Washington States environmental laws from ensuring that development does not degrade the environment to a standard that would require enhancement of environmental functions.
I have watched the changes occur from 1970 through now 2021. It makes me happy to see how environmental protection has been embraced and interwoven into all levels of government and in the community.