Fingers pointed both ways in Forest Theater dispute

“This is what happens when ignorance is given power.”

Those are the words Kitsap Forest Theater/The Mountaineers Players coordinator Jerry Dreessen chose to post on social media in summing up his frustration with the nonprofit Keta Legacy Foundation in Bremerton, who recently took steps to partially block The Mountaineers’ access to the historic Kitsap Forest Theater days before scheduled performances for the centennial season were set to commence.

That action was reversed May 24 by a U.S. District Court ruling, granting a temporary restraining order to clear the way for the Mountaineers Players’ performances of The Sound of Music and Seussical the Musical, which are scheduled to run until June 18 and Aug. 20 respectively.

CEO Tom Vogl of The Mountaineers, a long-standing Seattle-based nonprofit, said the organization was intentionally locked out late recently after a caretaker discovered that locks had been changed. This sudden restriction prompted Vogl to call out Keta for allegedly never intending to participate in good faith negotiations and led The Mountaineers to motion for the temporary restraining order in federal court.

“We were shocked,” Vogl said in an interview with Kitsap Daily News, “especially to have that happen literally about ten days before the opening of Sound of Music. It’s just really surprising that Keta would have taken that action right before the launch of our 100th anniversary season.”

“It makes no sense that an organization that relies on donations would purposefully harm another nonprofit,” added Dreessen.

A May 23 rebuttal from Keta on its website points blame to The Mountaineers. The statement, credited to the Keta Legacy Foundation Board, says the given situation could have been avoided had The Mountaineers attempted to negotiate with the group more promptly.

“They can try to deflect their responsibility to the theater group, members and ticket holders but by delaying their request for an access agreement and then rejecting our offer outright, they are solely at fault for the uncertainty facing the theater programming,” the statement read.

Keta released another statement following the court’s ruling, saying it was “heartened” by the ruling and a requirement for The Mountaineers to pay a $10,000 bond. Keta originally requested $5 million.

“The limited nature of the court’s ruling will help restrict damage to the Preserve, which may have occurred under the Mountaineers’ original requested relief, given their past practices,” said board of directors secretary Mindy Roberts.

A restraining order against Keta is the latest development in a long-standing legal battle between the two nonprofits that originated from questions surrounding easement rights and name trademarks among other issues. The outdoor amphitheater is still owned and operated by The Mountaineers. Additionally, the theater is surrounded by the Rhododendron Preserve, which was donated from the Mountaineers in 1985 to Keta, which originated as and still uses the name The Mountaineers Foundation.

The two organizations have since shared parts of land in coexistence as The Mountaineers access the theater via its entrance on its property and the “Back Access Road”, which was constructed decades ago to service the backstage area and provide disabled access to the theater.

The Mountaineers say the agreement was intended to last forever at the time, but as the nonprofits’ missions separated, the original agreement from 1985 and subsequent revised agreements were called into question. A document provided by The Mountaineers specified the agreement would automatically renew for successive five-year periods unless terminated in writing by either side.

Keta says it terminated this agreement in Dec. 2019, effective June 2020, alleging The Mountaineers did not uphold specific terms of the agreement. Additional frustrations stemmed from a continuing battle over who owns the “Mountaineers” name. The Mountaineers in their writings simply acknowledge Keta “attempting to terminate the 1985 agreement that assured historical uses of the property that The Mountaineers transferred to them.”

The two sides entered into a temporary agreement last year according to court documents which granted The Mountaineers access to the road amidst ongoing litigation. That agreement expired at the end of 2022 according to court documents.

Both sides appear to accuse the other of inaction when it comes to renewing the temporary agreement, and a ruling on the easement is expected in September.

Vogl said focus is back on the show for the time being. “We’re really relieved that the court sided with The Mountaineers on this motion and that we’re going to be able to proceed with our 100th-anniversary productions at the Kitsap Forest Theater,” he said. “We’re absolutely going to comply with the judge’s request that we place a $10,000 bond, and we’re going to continue to care for property and all of the surrounding area, including the preserve as we have for over 100 years.”

Keta says it will focus on maintaining the preserve as they have done in years past while they wait for further action from the courts. “The Preserve is a vital part of the Kitsap community and our work to enhance salmon habitat critical to their survival, foster relationships with schools and organizations, and offer environmental and conservation education opportunities for children of all ages,” the board said.