Yakama Nation Pursues Agricultural Expansion Plan to Replace its Dependency on Timber

The Yakama Nation has been heavily involved in the timber industry for decades. The current reservation is 1.377 million acres in South Central, Washington, which includes 600,000 acres of timber lands. (iStock.com / Samson 1976)

This article originally appeared in Native Business Magazine’s January/February 2019 “Energy” print edition

Their ancestral lands included more than 12 million acres, stretching from Mt. Rainer in the west, to the town of Twisp, Washington, near the Canadian border to the north, east to the Palouse region, and south to the Columbia River.  

In the skyline to the west is the majestic Pahto (Mount Adams), one of five Cascade volcanoes that dot the landscape from California to Washington. The Confederated Tribes & Bands of the Yakama Nation used the entire land base, from the lowlands around the Columbia River to the snow-peaked Cascade Mountains where the Yakima River flows southward to the Columbia River. In the spring, they would send hunting parties out onto the plains to the east as far as Montana to hunt buffalo.

Like others that lived along the Columbia River Plateau, they were hunters and gathers, well known for trading salmon and steelhead harvested from the annual runs in the Columbia River. They were traders, shrewd in their dealings with other Tribes to subsidize their way of living.

The land remains sacred to the Yakama Nation, one of the largest Tribes in the Pacific Northwest with 11,000 people, and they have continued to flourish through agricultural enterprises. They are in the process of putting a three-stage Agricultural Expansion Plan in place to ensure the people will continue to thrive.

“I would say from the 1960s through 2000, we’ve been a timber Tribe, meaning our timber production has been our main source of support,” said Phil Rigdon, Superintendent of Department of Natural Resources. “A lot of the mills across the Northwest closed in the 1990s, so we started our own mill that employs 250 people. It’s been a solid source of employment and revenue for a lot of people for many years.

“Timber has been the backbone for our economy for a long, long time and continues to be an important part of our Tribe’s income, because we ship to markets all across the world,” Rigdon added. 

The Tribe’s current reservation is 1.377 million acres in south central Washington, which includes 600,000 acres of timber lands. Because of the high quality of the pine products, most of the high-end wood is sold to Emerson Windows and Doors and other fine window makers, Rigdon said. They also sell a lot of their timber products to the Chinese market.

“I would say from the 1960s through 2000, we’ve been a timber Tribe, meaning our timber production has been our main source of support,” said Phil Rigdon, Superintendent of Department of Natural Resources. (iStock.com / Imagine Golf)

The timber industry has been a strong component of the economic base for the Yakama, but because of concerns of fluctuation in the market, Tribal leaders have developed an agricultural expansion plan to replace the dependency on the industry.

“Our intention is to expand our orchards and grow highly diversified crops,” said Brady Kent, program manager for the Land Enterprise Program. “We’re going into berries, corn and alfalfa. We’ll also be going into livestock cattle and bison. We’ll be developing our packing house, so that we can control the process and better distribute our products.”

The expansion into more diversified production will allow the Tribe to supplement existing revenue and instead of capturing pennies on the dollar for its enterprises, the focus will be on its abilities to capture the whole dollar.

The projects developed by the Yakama Nation Land Enterprise include fruit orchards and farm operations, a forest mill, casino and event center, wireless internet service called Yakama Nation Networks, sports complex, industrial park, as well as regular and controlled atmosphere cold-storage facilities for fruit and produce.

The Yakama Nation is diversifying into the tree fruit market with apple orchards, as well as cherries, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums. (iStock.com / Behind the Lens)

The main tree-fruit production includes apples, cherries, pears, peaches, nectarines and plums, which are sold on the international market. In partnership with the Intertribal Agricultural Council and the United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service, the Yakama Nation markets its fruit and produce to the world at the International Trade Shows in Hong Kong, Japan, France, Singapore, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, and a select group in the Mexican market.

“We’ll continue to sell our forest products, but because the timber industry goes up and down so much, we’re looking to stabilize that with diversity,” Rigdon said. “The biggest thing we want to do with our agricultural expansion plan is to have our own packing house for our orchards, so that we’ll have more control over the process (of going to market). The packing house will allow us to develop more jobs and avoid a step that ends up costing money.”

Over the past 20 years, the Tribe has come to understand there is a considerable amount of economic value in the Yakima Valley when it comes to growing food. The development of processing plants and timber mills, along with the expansion of orchards and the development of the livestock industry will better allow the Tribe to tap its resources.

Gary Pierce, Jr. is a Tribal member who was recently promoted to general manager of the Yakama Nation Land Enterprise Program. He is the newest Tribal manager, but he has witnessed the Tribe’s progress over the past couple of decades.

“I believe that we have a better understanding of the land, and we need to put the land into production, so we can yield greater value,” Pierce said. “There are a lot of commodities here in the Yakima Valley. Some of those commodities have become saturated due to the number of competitors. We’re looking at products that are not heavily in production, and we’re looking at other revenue sources that we’re still developing.”

As it was hundreds of years ago, each proposal must go before the General Council where it is discussed and voted on by the Tribal membership. It has been a long and arduous process at times, but integrating economic development to move forward in the 21st century with age-old Tribal customs is a delicate balance, Vice Chairman of the Tribal Council Virgil Lewis said.

“I’m very happy with where we’re at today,” Lewis said. “We’ve been granted approval and we’re moving forward. I’m very pleased with what the staff has been able to come up with so far.

“Right now, with the processing house, we might not have to market our fruit products internationally. We can stay local and tap into Seattle and other markets on the coast. But we’re still developing in that area.”

With Washington State being one of 10 states where marijuana is legal for recreational purposes and one of 20 states that has authorized its use medicinally, Tribal leadership said there has been no discussion about adding a cannabis crop.

“We don’t have vineyards or wineries. Even though the Yakama Nation Reservation is one of the biggest hops’ producers in the world, we don’t even have a hops yard, because treaty says we will not embark in creating spirits,” said Delano Saluskin, member of the Roads, Irrigation and Land Committee for the Yakama Nation Tribal Council. “Some of our elders took that to mean that we won’t even produce the ingredients.

Yakama Nation representatives discuss forest products and diversification in a meadow on the Yakama reservation. (Photo Courtesy Yakama Forest Products)

“The Yakama Reservation is not a dry rez. Non-Indians are allowed to own and operate establishments where liquor is sold. But we respect our elders and our people’s wishes on the matter, and that includes cannabis.”

Respect for the elders, respect for the land and doing right by what is good for the people as a whole, the Yakama Nation is moving forward with traditional values as its guide.