Battle shaping up over who owns Tulalip tidelands
Tribes, homeowners in dispute

By Jennifer Langston, Seattle Post-Intelligencer Reporter

Editor's note: The following article from the Seattle PI has been sent to us from United Property Owners (UPO) as an example of the growing aggressive positions being taken by many tribes across the country. UPO can be reached at

Saturday, November 1, 2003

TULALIP INDIAN RESERVATION — Irma Erickson has never denied anyone access to her private strip of beach.

But she balks at regulations that could allow tribal members to walk across her pier at any time — whether she's throwing a dinner party or sunbathing.

On a reservation where non-Indians own most of the developed waterfront, the Tulalip tribes contend treaty agreements and executive orders signed in the 1800s gave them ownership of the reservation's tidelands.

Many landowners disagree — some, such as Erickson, have unearthed yellowed land titles showing that allotments sold to whites nearly a century ago included the tidelands that have become their front yards.

The tribes are now proposing to regulate, charge rent on and allow tribal access to docks, bulkheads, beach stairs, boathouses and other structures built on tidelands below the reservation's high water mark.

They say the proliferation of beach amenities are damaging ecologically important marine habitat, ripping up nets and cutting them off from their traditional fishing grounds.

“Some of our people's concern is we can't walk the beaches,” said Stan Jones Sr., a 77-year-old fisherman and vice chairman of the Tulalip Board of Directors. “We're not looking for a battle, we just don't want to have to climb over things. “And if they're hurting the salmon, that's a concern.”  Here and elsewhere, several trends are fueling the dispute: suburban sprawl spilling onto reservation lands; new wealth allowing tribes to assert control over their resources; and non-Indian landowners refusing to submit to a government in which they have no voice or vote.

Non-tribal landowners own nearly 47 percent of the Tulalip reservation's property and most waterfront homes. Many believe they have claims to the tidelands. Recently, they formed the Tulalip Community Land Owners Association, raising $25,000 for a potential legal battle and researching the original land grants for their beachfront properties.

They've also joined a nationwide network of activists fighting tribal attempts to assert jurisdiction and taxing authority over non-Indians.

“We've been asleep out here, loving our waterfront, but this has awakened a sleeping giant,” said Kim Halvorson, a biotech executive whose family owns six homes along Priest Point.

“This is becoming more like a fiefdom or a dictatorship than a community.” But the Tulalip tribes contend they're not trying to regulate private property. They're just trying to rein in shoreline development on tidelands they've always owned.

Concrete bulkheads can starve beaches of sand, turning them into barren rocky cobbles where forage fish can't spawn.

And docks and boathouses can shade and kill eelgrass, a marine plant that harbors so much diversity it's been compared to a tropical rainforest.

Before the infusion of casino profits, the tribes didn't have the manpower to police the problem or enforce lease agreements for structures plopped on their property.

Now they do.

Shoreline development

From his new boat, Robert Myers, a fisheries enforcement officer for the Tulalip tribal police, points out how easy it is to tell who owns which stretch of waterfront.

The tribes' beaches have pristine cliffs, with eagles roosting in madrona trees, brushy shorelines and piles of tangled driftwood armoring the banks.

The private stretches are lined with miles of vertical seawalls holding back earth on which beachfront homes, summer retreats and cabins were built. They shore up docks and sandy driveways covered in barbecue grills, boat motors, crab pots, chaise lounges and herbs grown in antique fishing crates. Beach stairs that appear to defy the laws of physics zigzag down cliffs.

Lance Williams, a Tulalip fisherman, said the ever-increasing number of buoys landowners have anchored offshore to moor their boats is pushing him out of prime fishing areas. They rip holes in salmon nets the size of a car. “You try to avoid them but sometimes the tide catches you and sucks you into them,” said Williams. Myers has watched the intensity of shoreline development change over the years.

Simple boathouses evolve into fancy beachfront homes and docks that once served rowboats are enlarged to handle 50-foot yachts. In some cases, he said, work has been done without permits or permission.
“I've seen it ever since I started here 20 years ago,” he said, “and it's just gotten worse in terms of the encroachment.”

No one disputes that private landowners own part of the beaches.The disagreement centers on the strip of land that's flooded and exposed with the changing tides.

Across the Northwest, cases involving ownership of tidelands, lake bottoms and river beds have played out in the courts with different results.

On the Lummi Reservation, for example, landowners were ordered by a judge this
year to remove bulkheads built on tribally owned tidelands.

But in an earlier case on the Port Madison Indian Reservation, courts ruled that the Suquamish tribe couldn't claim ownership of disputed tidelands.

“It's come up in a lot of different places,” said Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington. “But each is really a case-by-case specific inquiry into the facts.”

Relationships under strain

Across the country, critics contend tribal governments flush with gambling profits
are causing widespread conflicts with their neighbors.

“It is severely straining what should be good relationships,” said Barb Lindsay, executive director of Property Owners United, a Redmond-based organization that fought a lawsuit ultimately allowing tribes to harvest shellfish on private beaches.

On the Tulalip reservation, those tensions are bubbling to the surface.

Non-tribal property owners, for example, were upset by a recent decision to raise their sewer and water rates by 43 percent regardless of how much water a household uses.

Some complain they learned about the tribes' proposed shoreline regulations only after someone saw a small green flier posted at a bus stop. They had to make copies and stuff notices into mailboxes themselves.

A public hearing brought out hundreds of non-tribal landowners, bristling at the prospect of paying leases on docks that have been there for decades. They worry tribal staff could deny repairs on structures that keep their homes from slumping into the sea, despite exemptions in the rules allowing it.

“If my bulkhead should fail, which is my front porch, I would have to go to the tribes for a repair and they could say no,” Erickson said.

Cal Taylor, who sat on the Tulalip Board of Directors for 12 years, said these power struggles are almost inevitable on a reservation with so many non-Indian residents. “They think of Tulalip as their home because some of them have been here for generations,” he said. “Sometimes they forget about the rights of the tribal members.”

Landowners say they share the tribes' goal of protecting Puget Sound's shorelines, which support a vast web of marine life. They disagree on who should enforce the rules, saying they're willing to submit to Snohomish County's stringent shoreline regulations.

In the meantime, landowners hope the tribes will work with beachfront homeowners on a plan that protects the environment — and their rights.

“The mood of the discussions has been anxious but conciliatory,” said Bob Anderson, a former Everett mayor who recently sold a longtime home on the Tulalip Reservation.

“The hope in people's minds is let's resolve this amicably — let's try not to torch this thing because that's not the way to live together.”