The troubled waters between Lummi Island and Lummi Nation appeared to have calmed somewhat, this week. Whatcom County officials and Lummi tribal leaders may be on their way to resolving a dispute that has clouded the future of ferry service between Indian land and the island community at the west edge of Bellingham Bay.
County Executive Pete Kremen told Crosscut he thinks the two sides will find a mediator who might lead them away from a standoff over the terms of a lease allowing the county to operate the ferry on Indian lands. Kremen and members of the Whatcom County Council met August 8 with elected Lummi officials and agreed to seek mediation. He's encouraged, Kremen told Crosscut, and believes an October "drop-dead" date for agreeing to the Lummi Nation's lease terms will be extended, while they search for a mediator acceptable to both sides.
The Whatcom Chief, a 49-year old, 19-car ferry, connects 900 or so residents of Lummi Island to the larger world, across mile-wide Hale Passage, between the Strait of Georgia and Bellingham Bay. County ferries began crossing Hale Passage in the 1920s and operated for most of the intervening years under some rather informal agreements between the county and Lummi Indian leaders, resting more on trust and verbal understandings than on strict, enforceable documents. That small-town style of governance seems to have ended when a 25-year agreement expired last winter.
The Lummi Business Council, the elected governing body on the reservation, wants the county to sign a 35-year lease with steep rent increases for use of the docking area at Gooseberry Point, on the Lummi Reservation, and for crossing adjacent tidelands controlled by the tribe. Whatcom County officials say the terms are way beyond what the county can afford.
Whatcom County currently pays Lummi Nation $200,000 a year for the lease. County officials want to continue at the same rate for 25 years. The Lummis want a 35-year lease at $315,000 per year, plus inflation-pegged yearly increases and a $4 million lump sum payment to help them build a new marina.
Whatcom County Council Chair Sam Crawford calculates the 35-year cost of the Lummi offer at more than $23 million. Crawford says it's about 58 times the appraised value of the lease, according to an independent appraiser chosen by the Lummis.
At the end of August, the Lummi were adamant. "Whatcom County had more than three years to negotiate this lease," Business Council Chair Henry Cagey told Bellingham's Cascadia Weekly, "and they have wasted that time. We've waited for them and we are done waiting. Our offer was final." Cagey's position may have softened. He told the Bellingham Herald last week that Whatcom County must do more to solve traffic and safety problems around the dock and adjacent roads. But he did not restate earlier demands.
In mid-August, County Executive Kremen asked for help from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. agency that oversees tribal affairs involving land held in trust by the federal government. The BIA ignored his request, leaving Kremen, in his words, "Disappointed, but not shocked."
"Not even a call to acknowledge the letter and say we can't help you," he told Crosscut. "To respond and say we don't have a dog in this fight, that's one thing. But not to respond at all, that's just unacceptable."
Deputy Regional Director Gerald Ben acknowledged that the BIA has ignored the ferry fuss. He says his agency generally doesn't intervene in disagreements between sovereign tribes and local governments, unless they involve land the BIA holds in trust for the tribes. That isn't the case at the ferry dock.
"Much of the ferry landing site is owned by the tribe, and is not held in trust by the federal government," Ben said. "We hold a very small portion. The tribe owns most of it on its own, like any person or organization. They can do pretty much what they want with it."
Lummi Islanders, who have little or nothing to do with the Lummi reservation except when they cross it on their way to Bellingham, say they're sympathetic to the tribe's desire to improve roads on the reservation and safety conditions around the ferry dock. They're also concerned over the likelihood of steep fare increases to cover the terms of a new lease. Or the unthinkable: being left to find their own way to the mainland.