McNeil Island meeting opens door of possibilities


Sara Thompson

What’s in the future for McNeil Island? With the state prison closing, will the families of old settlers resume ownership of their land? Will the native tribes harvest shellfish?

Back in July, a group of some 45 Key Peninsula residents gathered at the Lakebay Marina to get the facts.

Rep. Larry Seaquist organized the meeting in response to a request from the “Save McNeil Island” group. Six representatives from the Office of Financial Management, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Social and Health Services/Special Commitment Center and the Department of Fish and Wildlife came to share information and respond to questions.

Although the prison itself closed in 2010, the Special Commitment Center (SCC), a legislated program designed to house and treat sexually violent predators who have completed their prison terms and have been civilly committed by a court, remains open. And as long as the (SCC) remains on McNeil, there will unlikely be any significant change, according to the officials.

John Lane from OFM said McNeil, now a part of unincorporated Pierce County, was a site for food gathering by native tribes, and settlers arrived in the 1850s to live there. By 1940 the island was entirely owned by the federal government.

According to Lane, McNeil served as a site for a federal prison from 1875 until 1981 when Washington began leasing the prison. In 1984 the island ownership was transferred to the state, conditional on public benefit purposes as defined in federal law. One of the two deeds (about 30 percent of McNeil, or 1,300 acres) was for use as a correctional facility. The other deed (70 percent of McNeil and all of Pitt and Gertrude Islands) was set aside for wildlife conservation.

When the state decided to close the McNeil prison, power and water were disconnected and the buildings were boarded up. No further work is planned.

Mark Strong said the DSHS, which is responsible for the SCC, takes community safety very seriously. The facility is separate from the old prison, surrounded by a monitored double perimeter security fence. There are currently 266 residents and that population is projected to be stable through 2032.

Shane Belson from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife described the wildlife preserve. “The island complex is part of WDFW’s South Puget Sound Wildlife Area. McNeil, Pitt and Gertrude Islands are unique –– they remain as rare, relatively undeveloped islands in the South Sound. Staff from DFW monitor the harbor seal population carefully –– some 400-600 live on Gertrude Island, the largest and therefore most important seal haul-out site in the South Sound,” Belson said.

Several people posed the question whether there is a chance the island could revert back to federal land.

Lane said both deeds restrict use of the property in perpetuity to the designated public benefit purposes of corrections and wildlife; contain conditions and restrictions related to archaeological properties, wildlife and public access; and require, at the option of the federal government, reversal of ownership to the federal government if the state fails to use or maintain the property for the designated public benefit purposes.

“We come away from this meeting with a clear, practical way forward. If the KP Community Council so wishes, we’ll introduce legislation and a budget item to build on the 2012 OFM study to create a specific action plan for specific set of uses,” Seaquist said.

Seaquist said he has “informal indicators” that the federal government would work with the Legislature. “We are within a year of a specific set of next step plans and, if budgets allow, very rapid action after that,” he said.

A public discussion meeting with Seaquist, hosted by the KP Council, is scheduled for Nov. 12, 7 p.m. at the Key Center fire station.