The state is walking away from its dry-dock project at Port Angeles, after spending $58 million on the site. The decision announced yesterday by Gov. Gary Locke and Secretary of...

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The state is walking away from its dry-dock project at Port Angeles, after spending $58 million on the site.


The decision announced yesterday by Gov. Gary Locke and Secretary of Transportation Doug MacDonald was in response to a request by the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe that the state leave the construction site. The work has inadvertently disturbed more than 300 intact skeletons of the tribe’s ancestors and an ancient Klallam village, Tse-whit-zen.


Portions of the village date back 17 centuries, and many archaeologists consider it the most important archaeological find ever in the state. More than 10,000 artifacts have been recovered from the site, along with more than 700 bone fragments. Yet a pre-construction analysis of the site by a private contractor had found nothing.


“There is no way we could proceed in good conscience knowing how significant this archaeological site is,” Locke said. “I don’t think future generations would forgive us for ignoring this, and just paving it over. It would be akin to paving parts of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and that would just be absolutely unacceptable and unforgivable.”


The state began work at the site in August 2003 to build a dry dock for construction of pontoons and anchors that are to be used in replacing the eastern half of the Hood Canal Bridge.


After the first human remains were found, work stopped until last March.


It resumed under an agreement with the tribe that provided for recovery of artifacts and moving human remains from harm’s way. The village was to be sacrificed.


At the time, tribal officials said they thought about 25 graves would be found. It soon became clear there were hundreds.


What to do with the site now and where to build the pontoons for the bridge are yet to be decided.


Tribal members said they are relieved the ordeal is over.


“We are more than gratified,” said tribal Chairwoman Frances Charles. “It is important to the tribe to protect our ancestors and the cultural and spiritual resources at Tse-whit-zen.”


Some elected officials said they were taken aback by the decision.


“I’m surprised at the apparent finality of the announcement,” said Port Angeles City Manager Mike Quinn. “I am still going to hold out hope. If we can find a solution, we owe it to our constituents to look for one. It’s such an important project, not only to Port Angeles, but to the state. It’s a shame to abandon it.”


Some say they aren’t willing to let the matter drop yet.


“It’s created an unconscionable crisis out here,” said Larry Williams, a member of the Port Angeles City Council and one of the first to urge the state to use the site for the bridge project. “There is a lot more room to talk. We need to keep people at the table.”


Williams said of MacDonald: “If he has thrown up his hands and walked away, he is leaving us with a hell of a mess.”


State Rep. Jim Buck, R-Joyce, said that in Port Angeles the discussion is far from over. “Frankly, we have spent $58 million here already, and the Legislature might have something to say about just walking away. We will just have to see whether this community can come together and turn out and make a case for saving this,” he said.


MacDonald gave no indication of willingness to revisit the decision.


“No one is going to be happy that money will have been spent on the site, which we will not get back,” he said. “But on the other hand, what we will get at the site maybe cannot be valued in money. The sense of history and importance of what can be learned from the site, for one. And there are some important things to be said to the tribe, and Indian Country everywhere, that we in fact do listen, do care, and can relate to the concerns they have brought to this process.


“We started to build one bridge. We may have wound up building another.”


Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com