By BRIAN KELLY
ARLINGTON — Tiny twigs, many so small they would sneak through the teeth of a rake, represent a dream of self-sufficiency that’s taking root near the muddy banks of the Stillaguamish River.
The Stillaguamish Tribe will break ground Friday for what it hopes will be the county’s largest propagation nursery, a place where native plant seedlings and cuttings will temporarily put down their roots, grow large and someday help save salmon.
"The salmon are a big part of our culture and our tradition, our people," tribal chairman Edward L. Goodridge Sr. said. "The salmon, for hundreds of years, have been a part of our life."
Tribe members credit the idea to Lou Goodridge, a tribal elder and council chairman who died in 1993.
"He thought the time was going to come when we would have to restore the riverbank," Goodridge said. "He was kind of ahead of his time."
But the nursery, the biggest business venture ever by the tribe of 181 members, also will provide jobs for Indian youths and bring economic self-sufficiency.
"A critical bottleneck in this (nursery) industry is the supply of starter plants," project director Doug Kenfield said. Eventual customers will include conservation districts, wholesale nurseries and large landscape contractors.
"We don’t want to compete with the established wholesale outlets," Kenfield said. "They are going to be our customers, they will buy what we produce.
"I think it’s a way we can integrate into the existing market," he said.
The ranks of plants should grow rapidly in coming weeks. The nursery is expected to expand almost fourfold, to roughly 18,000 plants, by mid-November, Kenfield said.
He hopes the nursery will be distributing up to 2 million plants annually within three years.
The nursery is located on the tribe’s 56-acre farm on the banks of the Stillaguamish River just west of I-5. Water lines have been laid, fields readied, and an old, unused barn has been renovated into a potting shed.
It’s part of the tribe’s BankSavers Project, which will include a habitat restoration installation and consulting service.
It’s been an expensive undertaking for a small tribe whose previous business efforts have been limited to running an espresso stand.
Besides sweat equity and roughly $400,000 in land costs, the tribe also has put up $120,000 for the project. The Stillaguamish received $315,000 in state economic development funds, and the governor’s office kicked in $75,000, said Jay Moolenijzer, the tribe’s grants manager.
"That seems like a lot of money, but that’s small-time money for starting an operation this size," he said.
Oregon grape, salal and other native ground covers aren’t the only things being nurtured, however.
"One of the things we’re doing, besides growing plants, is we’re encouraging young people to grow themselves," Kenfield said.
The Bishop Foundation and the Allstate Foundation have contributed $5,000 each to start an apprenticeship program for workers at the nursery.
Eight young workers have been hired. Eventually, the full-time crew will grow to 15, and another 25 seasonal workers will be needed.
"What used to be a fallow hayfield is starting to look like a nursery," Moolenijzer said, adding that pride shows in the faces and attitudes of the workers.
"They’re fantastic. It’s exciting to see these young people so fully committed."
The tribe hopes the nursery becomes self-sufficient in five years, with a net income of up to $360,000 a year.
It took many years for the dream to take root.
"We have always had bigger priorities — get houses built, get a community center," said Eddie Goodridge, co-executive director of the tribe and son of the tribal chairman.
"There were so many needs."
The new nursery is the tribe’s biggest accomplishment since the Stillaguamish regained federal recognition in the late 1970s, Goodridge said.
They started applying for grants about 18 months ago.
"There were a lot of times we thought we were going to lose it, (that) it wasn’t going to succeed," he said.
"Every big project has its critics," he said, adding that some thought it was a waste of time and no funding would ever be garnered for the project.
"We’ve got it; we’re here. We’ve got all the funding in place."
The tribe’s commitment to the idea was one reason it received state funding, said Tina Cohen of the state Office of Trade and Economic Development.
"They’ve done their homework," she said. "They have their business plan and they know where they want to go."
The tribe’s venture may show that the Stillaguamish can become self-sufficient without hurting the earth.
"It’s not a matter of sacrificing the environment for jobs or vise versa," Cohen said.
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