Rep. J.T. Wilcox: Salmon are Washington’s shared legacy. Protecting them requires changing our hearts
(Note: This op-ed appeared in The News Tribune on November 22, 2023. You can also read it here.)
When I considered seeking public office in 2009, my dad said to me: “J.T., you need to talk to Billy first.” Billy wasn’t a relative or a political consultant. My dad was referring to his friend and our state’s great natural resources leader — Billy Frank Jr.
I took that advice and met with Billy at a restaurant in Yelm. It wasn’t our first meeting. I remember him coming to our farm many years before with his young son, Willie, and walking along the Nisqually River together. We discussed the deep importance of that body of water to the generations before us.
During our meeting just over 14 years ago, Billy provided me with valuable insights that still resonate today. He told me that he could get bills passed and the governor would sign them, and that he was nearly undefeated in court in holding the federal government accountable for promises made in treaties. But Billy cautioned that politics could be transitory.
Billy emphasized that past gains could all go away if you fail to convince people. He believed the only way to make change permanent was to change the hearts of people. This is what made Billy so successful in life, with friends and adversaries alike, and what we need more of today.
What Billy did to protect treaty rights and tribal sovereignty is an important story in our history. His wins were rooted in his fundamental belief in salmon, the people who rely on salmon, and our shared culture of fish. Billy’s accomplishments led to many accolades and awards, including being posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
But how Billy did all this is equally as remarkable. Despite the obstacles, suffering and oppression he faced, he was resolute in his moral stance and never became bitter. Another important lesson for us all today.
Through the passage of House Bill 1372 in 2021, sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a statue of Billy will be designed and ultimately placed in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. In that legislation, his advocacy for equality, justice, and environmental protections are highlighted.
I feel honored to be on The Billy Frank Jr. National Statuary Hall Selection Committee with others, including my friend Willie Frank III — who is now chairman of the Nisqually Indian Tribe. We look forward to the day this statue is displayed in our nation’s capital.
Other tribal leaders have shared their stories with me over the years of the cultural, historical, and economic importance of salmon to tribes. A Makah Tribal Elder once told me: “If our young people cannot fish, we will lose our culture.” He went on to say that he knew non-tribal fishing people felt just as strongly about their culture. I have learned that the act of fishing is as important as salmon preservation.
With these lessons and stories in mind, I have been working closely with stakeholders — including tribes and non-tribal fishing people — on salmon recovery solutions. Next month, prior to the 60-day legislative session that begins on January 8, I and other Republicans and Democrats will begin introducing bipartisan legislation.
Our solutions will include: increasing funding for salmon recovery projects; offering a sales and use tax exemption for salmon recovery projects; penalizing polluting our water with untreated sewage; spurring private investment through an adopt-a-fish-barrier program; eliminating government waste and taking advantage of efficiencies by streamlining our riparian programs; and understanding the catastrophic effects of both avian and marine predators. We will also propose ongoing funding to the Salmon Recovery Account for habitat, hatcheries, and harvest enforcement.
The package of legislation will be heavy on new funding and state government accountability, but light on regulatory impact. I look forward to working with Rep. Lekanoff and Rep. Chris Stearns, Indigenous leaders in today’s House of Representatives, and other state lawmakers on these bills.
The phrase that will be inscribed on the statue of Billy Frank Jr. will say: “Tell your story.” Another important lesson for us all today as our Legislature addresses critical issues, such as cost of living, public safety, and K-12 education, and contemplates how policies will affect individuals, families, and communities.
Let’s listen to the stories of others, share our own stories, have open hearts ourselves, and impact our future in positive ways — like Billy did in his life.