Jen Savigny, a wildlife biologist with the Stillaguamish Tribe Natural Resources Department, carries plant protection collars as she, members of the Stillaguamish Tribe and others volunteers marked Billy Frank Day by planting around 500 trees along the Stillaguamish River on Thursday in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Jen Savigny, a wildlife biologist with the Stillaguamish Tribe Natural Resources Department, carries plant protection collars as she, members of the Stillaguamish Tribe and others volunteers marked Billy Frank Day by planting around 500 trees along the Stillaguamish River on Thursday in Arlington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Stillaguamish plant trees to honor Billy Frank Jr.

ARLINGTON — The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians hosted a celebration Thursday to mark Billy Frank Jr. Day on what would have been the late Nisqually leader’s 85th birthday.

A day-long series of events started off with a low-key activity that hewed close to Frank’s vision: restoring salmon habitat.

“We’re just getting together to honor all the work Billy Frank did,” said tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity.

Frank was a key figure during the “fish wars,” and was arrested dozens of times for asserting tribal rights to salmon fishing. After the landmark Boldt decision started the era of co-management of salmon runs, Frank became the first chairman of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. He died in 2014.

In this case, honoring Frank’s legacy included planting 500 trees and shrubs in the flood plain on the north bank of the Stillaguamish River.

“Basically we’re trying to recover it from the state it was in when the tribe acquired it,” said Jason Anderson, a riparian ecologist for the tribe.

Its former state was a vacant hay field, and for a while it housed the Banksavers Nursery. The nursery was moved to higher ground because the lot tends to flood.

A group of about 20 volunteers and tribal employees headed out into the field. They fanned out and started planting rows of alternating saplings and shrubs.

The trees — Douglas fir, bigleaf maple and paper birch — are spaced so that they won’t overgrow each other, but will still provide shade to the shrubs, which include snowberry, ocean spray, black twinberry and red osier dogwood, said Steve Huntley, the manager of the tribal-owned nursery.

Anderson pointed out a stand of tall cottonwood trees along the riverside, and said the goal was to have a diversity of trees already planted so that when the cottonwoods begin to die off, there will be others rising to fill the gaps in the forest canopy.

The tribe does riverside restoration work on state, county and private land throughout the Stillaguamish watershed, Anderson said.

The volunteers took only about half an hour to put about 500 saplings into the ground. Assembling plastic trunk protectors was more labor-intensive, especially as the rain started, the temperature dropped and people were trying to thread bamboo stakes through tiny holes in the plastic.

“Next time we do this, we should do it in Hawaii maybe,” Yanity said.

The day also included the dedication of a memorial garden in Frank’s honor and a dinner and cultural program in the tribe’s community center. Representatives of the Tulalip, Lummi, Swinomish and other tribes were there, and Lummi singers led the room in an opening prayer.

Lorraine Loomis, the chairwoman of the Fisheries Commission, said this was a day to remember Frank as a leader, elder and friend to many people in the room.

“It’s also a day of action to continue the good work Billy inspired us to do,” Loomis said.

Loomis and Frank’s son, Willie Frank, then presented the first Billy Frank Jr. Leadership Award to Mel Moon Jr., the director of natural resources for the Quileute Nation. The award recognized Moon’s decades of service and work to protect tribal treaty rights and natural resources.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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