A 250-acre irrigation project along state Route 6 that’s owned by the City of Chehalis has a new name, says City Manager Jill Anderson: poplar tree farm.
Since its acquisition by the city roughly two decades ago, the plot of land has been known as the “poplar tree plantation” for its use of the namesake trees that absorb reclaimed water and recharge a local aquifer. But heightened scrutiny over perceptions of race in America in recent months — along with a decaying wooden sign — has the city rethinking the name.
Though the word “plantation” seems appropriate in the description of the land, for some it evokes the centuries-long practice of using enslaved Black labor in the American plantation economy.
Simply put, it’s not a positive reflection of what the site is. At least, that was the reasoning behind an email Anderson received from a member of Rural Americans Against Racism. Anderson said she received a polite email from one member of the group suggesting the city rename the site, located at 1026 state Route 6 in Chehalis.
“In reference to the word, it has a more loaded meaning,” Anderson told The Chronicle in describing the email’s stance on the use of the word plantation.
Anderson said she found the group’s reasoning articulate and respectful. So she made the call to change the name.
In a post to Facebook group Multiculturally Minded Lewis County in late June, member Michelle Conrow gave a call to action to change the site’s name after it was brought to their attention that Black visitors to the area felt “unwelcome and left with a negative feeling because of the sign.”
“The word plantation, while technically correct, cannot be divorced from (the) association with the enslaved Black people (upon) whose backs plantations were built. Additionally, the trees in Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” are poplar trees,” Conrow wrote
Normally, a vote from the city council would be required to change the name of a city-owned facility, location or property. But because the poplar tree farm has never formally been named, except in city documents and reference material, city leadership has the right to make the call, Anderson said.
The name used is simply a descriptor, she said.
“There’s no formal declaration of that plot of land, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “It’s sort of how it’s been referred to.”
Anderson said they plan on replacing the wooden sign with a more weather-proof metal one that’s similar in theme to the city’s wayfinding signs. She said she didn’t have a timeline on when that new one would be up.
Before the irrigation site played host to thousands of poplar trees, the large plot was once owned by the Hamilton family, according to previous stories in The Chronicle.
Reclaimed water from the city’s wastewater treatment plant is periodically pumped out to the poplar trees when water flows on the Chehalis River fall below 1,000 cubic feet per second, according to information on the city’s website.
The poplar irrigation farm is divided into 11 management units, one or two of which are watered at a time, and planted with nine different hybrid varieties. Treated water also strengthens an underground aquifer. The trees grow 8 to 10 feet per year and are harvested every 10 to 15 years to make paper.