Unlikely allies work together to improve economic viability in Grays Harbor
Could oil refineries be the answer to economic development in Grays Harbor? If so, what impacts will they have on the ecological and economic health of the region? With the help of Evergreen students, Grays Harbor communities—despite historical and cultural differences—are finding common ground in their approach and answers.
When faculty member Zoltán Grossman first approached the Quinault Indian Nation about ways students enrolled in his program, Resource Rebels: Environmental Justice Movements Building Hope, could help, he anticipated an invitation to study the recently proposed oil terminal. He believed students would study how the oil industry poses a risk to the environment and public safety in Grays Harbor County.
Instead, the Quinault wanted students to look beyond this particular fight over the oil terminal, and toward alternatives to fossil fuel infrastructure.
“In other words, they were talking about their relationship with the non-native community in Grays Harbor County,” says Grossman. “They wanted us to be involved in envisioning a future for the non-native community as well as the native community on building the economy of Grays Harbor County, which has been depressed for so many years.”
The hope was to come up with long-range, sustainable economic opportunities for all the people of the region.
“The Quinault Indian Nation is really looking toward the cooperation of the future, rather than just the conflict of the present,” says Grossman. “ I was impressed with that.” With Grossman’s guidance, students compiled a report on the dialogue Grays Harbor communities had about economic alternatives to fossil fuel infrastructure, and how it could bring together the community as a whole.
The unique twist in this case, and something that helped lay the groundwork for students, is that these communities were already beginning to work together. Local crab and salmon fishers, those who harvest razor clams and oysters, and other non-natives who traditionally work off the land, were sympathetic to the Quinault position opposing the oil terminal. “It’s surprising,” says Grossman, “because before, within the community, you not only had the spotted owl debates, there were treaty fishing rights battles as well. But when tension comes from an outside source, then they can come together to protect the same natural resources they fought over before—that’s really the idea of unlikely alliances.”
Interviewing, ethics, and an open mind
Grossman team-taught Resource Rebels with faculty member Karen Gaul, an anthropologist working in sustainability studies. Gaul worked with another group of students to help prepare the Nisqually Indian Tribe with hosting the annual Canoe Journey. Before students set foot on tribal land, however, they spent fall quarter researching ethics protocols, fully preparing themselves for the interviews and tasks ahead.
In order to draft the 85-page Economic Options for Grays Harbor report, Grossman’s student group also studied economic options and job-generating possibilities in Aberdeen, Hoquiam, and other Grays Harbor communities, breaking off into teams that best suited their interests and met the needs of the combined communities.
Those teams covered ports and industries, tourism and transit, forestry and forest products, and fisheries and energy. As the students dove into the work, they found homelessness and drug addiction to be areas of concern, in terms of implementing social services to address those needs, as well as their impact on tourism, so a fifth category, community issues, was created.
The students interviewed dozens of community leaders and citizens, including members of the Quinault Indian Nation, Aberdeen Mayor Erik Larson, industry officials, homeless advocates, community members, representatives from the Quinault Department of Natural Resources and Grays Harbor Community College, and members of the Aberdeen Revitalization Movement (ARM), a nonprofit group of business owners and community volunteers.
“I heartily recommend that people read the report for themselves,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, in an article she wrote for The Daily World. “The students did a fine job capturing the essence of our region and presenting these results. But generally speaking, the report demonstrates how the students came to the conclusion that the solutions to Grays Harbor’s struggling economy will, indeed, come from cooperation and partnerships between people whose lives are based on natural-resource-based industries, such as alternative wood products, ecotourism and recreation, cultural and history- based tourism, and forest recreation.”
Eight million tourists drive through Aberdeen and Hoquiam annually to visit ocean beaches. Local communities are working on ways to get those people to stop, shop, and enjoy the once-vibrant cities of Grays Harbor. They are collaborating on a welcome center and a historic seaport to berth two tall ships. There is talk of highlighting Kurt Cobain’s Aberdeen origins by proposing a Nirvana museum.
One student, Roma Castellanos ’17, worked on the ports and industries section of the report to showcase the voices of community members and their opinions of the Port of Grays Harbor and its economic development. He received Dan and Sheryl Tishman Scholarships in 2015 and 2016, as well as a George Washington Hayduke III Scholarship for Environmental Education in 2016.
“I was drawn to Resource Rebels because I wanted to learn more about the grassroots resistance to fossil fuel development, locally and globally,” Castellanos says. “I chose to work with the port and industries team because the majority of Aberdeen’s current economy relies on the port and waterfront, shipping, manufacturing, fishing, etcetera. I wanted to know what locals would like to see change or no change, in terms of development.”
The students found that the current use of the port and waterfront property is entirely industrial, with the exception of one boat launch used as a community access point, and that there were mixed perceptions of the port’s role in providing jobs.
“The populace has come to accept that their waterfront is industrial, as it is an important revenue source,” the students reported, noting that community members valued local manufacturing over sending jobs elsewhere. “It would be in the best interest of the community to generate industries that use local materials and create goods which can be used locally as well as exported to other markets.”
The students were able to then identify promising opportunities for the future of waterfront industrial infrastructure, such as a newly acquired Korean partner exporting fresh seafood. Additionally, the port property of Bowerman Airport, if properly maintained, could become a hub of light aircraft engine testing, or even manufacturing, they noted.
Another aspect of the port and industry focus was job retraining. Many people in Grays Harbor have been forced to find new work since the decline in the timber industry, and many young people have chosen to leave the area. The students identified that Grays Harbor College has the ability to quickly implement training for new industries, and that its faculty are eager to help.
Castellanos says he was pleasantly surprised to find that the Quinault Indian Nation is the largest creator of jobs in Grays Harbor County. He sees an interesting opportunity for the Quinault to use their economic pull to influence political decisions when it comes to fossil fuel development.
“There is hope for the future of Grays Harbor,” Castellanos says. “We found that people have the solutions to the problems their community is facing, but many of them don’t have the support to make things happen—whether it is financial support, people power, or visibility. The proposed oil terminals gave people from different backgrounds a common enemy and brought them together for the future of their shared waters. We see similar stories playing out across the country every day and our report proves that we shouldn’t take any of these grassroots efforts for granted.”