There may be a standoff of sorts early next month, but Whatcom County will continue to run its ferry to Lummi Island. County officials made that clear this week; never mind that the governing body of Lummi Nation says the ferry must shut down by April 11 unless the tribe and the county can come to terms on a new lease.
As of now there’s little sign of that happening. A March 4 meeting in Washington, D.C., between Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen and Lummi leader Clifford Cultee apparently made no progress on the main sticking point — the amount the county must pay to use Indian land and tidelands.
Whatcom County Council Chairman Sam Crawford doesn’t expect anything very dramatic to happen on April 11, even if there are no more talks. “It would be a matter of the tribe suing us to try to stop the ferry," he said. “They would need to go to court against the county. That would go on for a very long time, it would cost both sides a lot of money, and it would prolong the uncertainty for more than 950 people who depend on the ferry.”
That would be the 950 who live on the far side of Hale Passage and depend on the aging ferry Whatcom Chief to get them to work on the mainland, to bring ambulances, fire trucks, and sheriff’s cars to the island.
A mile-wide saltwater gap divides Lummi Island from Gooseberry Point, on the Lummi Indian Reservation west of Bellingham. That’s where the 20-car ferry lands and departs 39 times a day, across tidelands owned by the tribe, and where ferry passengers park. There’s been a ferry here since sometime between 1916 or 1919, according to island historians.
For the past 12 months, Whatcom County’s been paying Lummi Nation $16,667 a month for the right to operate the ferry and provide parking space. Those are the terms of an interim agreement signed after a 25-year lease expired. The expired document provided a way in which the two sides could settle a dispute over renewal terms, with the use of binding arbitration.
However, Clifford Cultee, who heads the Lummi Business Council, the tribe’s governing body, says that contract was never valid. Although both the Lummi Nation and Whatcom County signed it, and both lived up to its terms for 25 years, it was never signed by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, for reasons no one’s been able to explain. The BIA’s supposed to oversee agreements of this kind between tribes and local governments. Without a BIA signature, Lummi leaders told the county last year, there’s no valid contract and hasn’t been since 1985. A brand new agreement must be worked out, they said, with new and more expensive terms.
On Feb. 10, Cultee returned the monthly rent check to the county, with a letter warning, “It is our expectation that ferry service will cease within 60 days from the date of this letter.” The letter followed months of negotiations between county and tribe, including a session with a hired mediator who gave up after one day.
Tribal leaders want any new agreement to include:
- $200,000 per year in rent for 35 years, with increases tied to the national cost of living index.
- $10 million in safety improvements along the Haxton Road, which ferry riders use to drive across the reservation to the dock, and which Lummi Planning Director Richard Jefferson calls “the most dangerous road in the county, with lots of walkers and no shoulders or sidewalks.”
- A lump sum payment of $4 million to help the Lummi Nation build a new marina, payable when the tribe acquires its federal permits to start building.
Whatcom County wants a 25-year lease with the rent pegged to $200,000 a year. Crawford says the county has no way of meeting the other demands. The county’s already planning some improvements along Haxton Road, he said, but not on the scale demanded by the tribe.
Lummi Nation leaders have not said what steps they might take to prevent the ferry from operating if the disagreement continues past the April 11 deadline. Cultee was not available for comment, and Planning Director Jefferson said he wasn’t authorized to talk about it.
Assistant Whatcom County Prosecutor Dan Gibson told the Bellingham Herald that only the BIA, not the tribe, has legal authority to stop ferry operations. Judith Joseph, the BIA’s Puget Sound Area Director, indicated that the BIA would not use its authority to block the county from crossing tribal tidelands. The BIA’s only role, she said, would be to review and approve any new lease between the tribe and the county — the same function the BIA somehow failed 27 years ago, setting up the potential for an April showdown at Gooseberry Point.
This story has been revised since it first appeared to change the number of months for Whatcom County payments.