Lummi Accolade: Brave, Smart and Honest

Lummi officials and Lummi Island residents meet -Village to Village

Lummi officials and Lummi Island residents meet -Village to Village


One of the finest moments a public interest advocate can experience, after browbeating an issue, is to get to say, "I was wrong," as the desired result is achieved. I was wrong!  I predicted federal intervention would be required to secure the road to Lummi Island, and that in the short term, prospects looked bleak. Of course, advocacy requires stirring things up a bit, as the saying goes, "Comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable."  I gave it a shot.

I took it upon myself to dive into the issue of the Lummi Island ferry because it had all the hallmarks of an excellent good-government issue: secret meetings, serious consequences, huge public costs, labyrinthian rules, incompetence and social conflict. I am happy to report that, with much left to do, the problem seems to be abating.  Abating or not, some of these points may well deserve sharper scrutiny.

Tonight, Lummi Nation officials met a packed house of the Lummi Island community at the Beach School to present an update on negotiations with the County for the Lummi Island ferry terminal at Gooseberry Point. It was an excellent meeting, competently presented by impressive, brave, smart and honest people.

Richard Jefferson, Lummi Nation Planning Director, led with a PowerPoint presentation.  He affably explained that the original mission statement was to communicate with all stakeholders.  He admitted they had not done it very well, that they got caught up in the fight and lost track of their own goals.  He credited LIBC employees with nudging them back on track.

The good news?  The Tribe and County agree ferry operations will continue uninterrupted. There is now agreement, in principle, to a 25 year lease with a 25 year extension.

The issue of the last lease's validity was explained.  The lease does clearly state, "It is further understood and agreed by the parties that this lease shall be valid and binding only after approval by the secretary."  Oops.  The County must take some responsibility for negligence in not submitting the lease for approval.  The Lummi nevertheless honored the contract because the first 25 years was fully paid, up front, through agreed land conveyances.

Jefferson outlined years of effort attempting to address the lease problem and problems with ferry traffic, including meetings, committees, numerous reports and studies, resolutions, ongoing communications and joint efforts to secure funding. But even when the lease was up and negotiation unavoidable, it still seemed like the County was incapable of taking the matter seriously.  After months of negotiation, including no shows and walkouts, the Tribe finally wrote a letter to the County insisting they send someone who could actually make decisions.  County Executive Pete Kremen and Council Member Sam Crawford arrived and things started falling into place.  Thanks, guys. Kudos.

The bad news?  It's going to cost more.  The deal is contingent upon agreement to move the ferry dock. The Tribe has planned to build a marina in Fisherman's Cove for thirty years. Safe harbor is the Holy Grail for a tribe with fishing in their blood.  Usually six or so boats a year sink during winter storms. The Tribe even had a grant in hand once, but a herring spawn queered the deal.  Their new plan includes a system of breakwater islands with footprints large enough to accomodate large eelgrass plantings that will succor herring populations.  Eventually the ferry dock will need to move, not very far, but strategically, to integrate with planned shore protections. It's a cost, but prevents the ferry from being an elephant in the marina.

Then there is the cost of impinging upon fishing grounds. Financial mitigation of lost fishing opportunity has precedent in agreements for the Washington State Edmonds ferry, the City of Everett Boeing dock, Cherry Point and the Shellfish Settlement. Jefferson admitted it is not something easily quantified, but that earlier agreements set some benchmarks and it must be done as a matter of protecting their interests in treaty protected resources.

Then there's the damn cars. Issues with traffic at Gooseberry Point include safety, access, inconvenience, and a number of other pedestrian and traffic management issues. This means any ferry compact will include some agreement addressing these traffic issues, especially on Haxton Way.  There is a long list of projects and improvements, and some optimism the renegotiation can help set a new tone in collaborative Tribal/County planning, including joint application for funding basic amenities like road improvements, crosswalks, paths and sidewalks.  With reference to public works planning, Jefferson said, "Frank Abart (new County Director of Public Works) is one of the best things to happen to Whatcom County in a long time."  There is no doubt it is going to cost more, but Island attendees did not exhibit opposition to the Tribe's safety oriented community agenda.

It's impossible not to make a crack about the Jefferson show. Richard Jefferson was joined by the well-spoken tribal council, Ralph Jefferson, and the dedicated Merle Jefferson, Natural Resources Director.  They all spoke clearly and simply, exhibiting the effortless message discipline that only comes from really being on the same page and speaking from the heart.

To bring that home, James Wilson, 85 year old tribal elder and LIBC member, told a charming tale of his birth on Lummi Island and years of working the fisheries there.

"I'm telling you a story now and you don't have to believe it.  My dad loaded fish at the (Lummi Island) cannery and my mom cut them.  The story goes that mom was working and started having labor pains, and not from her labor at the cannery.  So she went out to go up to one of the shacks, but she didn't make it.  They say I was born on the beach, but I don't care if it's true.  I'm back in my old hometown."

"I built my own house and I'm a fisherman, not a carpenter. Don't ask me how it looks, 'cause I'm not tellin.'  My five kids grew up there and I didn't go back to school until I was thirty eight."

"I been working with the Lummi all my life.  I got the papers to prove it but I don't want to pack them around.  I was around for the first ferry negotiations.  We offered the County a lease for $160 a month and, you know, they asked if we could knock it down to $100. Anyway, we don't want to put anyone in jeaopardy or hurt. We want to be friends. I'm happy to be here. This is my home."

Later, Jefferson added the part Wilson left out.  When he was just a young boy, the authorities dragged him out of a crabapple tree and off to a school where he was beaten and tortured for speaking his native tongue.  He didn't get to see his parents or family for many years.

Tying it all together, Jefferson made several sincere apologies for the stress and anxiety he knew Lummi Islanders had felt with all the uncertainty, "No one understands better than the Lummi what it feels like to have government making decisions about your life and not telling you about it."

The meeting ran well past the apointed time. Jefferson noted their delegation would miss the ferry with, "It's the Lummi way.  It takes as long as it takes.  We're still here." Indeed. They have been for several thousand years! A recurrent theme was that the Lummi have an abiding interest in maintaining good relations with their neighbors and a fair shake for themselves.  No one disagreed.


This nevertheless remains an issue with several good toeholds.  What liability does the County have for the additional costs attendant to their negligence in not having the lease approved?  Is a lease the right instrument for the road to Lummi Island?  Would a right-of-way be more secure? Is it an essential public facility?  Is there a role or opportunity for federal participation in a permanent settlement?  While property negotiations qualify for executive privilege, is public participation important to arriving at viable solutions?  We'll touch upon these as the need arises.  I promise.


I thank Lummi officials for taking the initiative to meet and for being so sensible and frank.  It was a healing moment I'm glad I witnessed.  Apparently no County officials were in attendance.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Cathy Thompson

Feb 06, 2010

Tip, thanks for witnessing our Island meeting with the Lummi Nation on Thursday night.  You went above and beyond the call of duty giving us a timely, factual recap.  At 1:00 am, no less!!

Islanders were elated that we weren’t going to have a “blockade” and heading to Fairhaven on short notice; and that Feb. 15th will be “just another day” with ferry service. 

On the other hand, we know that this is just the beginning of negotiations that have been stalled for quite some time. Somehow both sides (County & Nation)finally became “motivated” about 2 weeks ago.  We are all anxious that things now proceed fairly and continuously, until a real agreement can be crafted.

Another important meeting is coming up on Monday Feb. 8.  It is at the school again.  The lawyers hired by Protect Lummi Island Community (PLIC) will be explaining what they have been doing on the Islanders’ behalf to help “save our ferry”; and what’s next to make sure that the conceptual agreement negotiations evolve into something we can all live with.  There will be a couple “live mike” sessions with the Island community requested to comment with their questions, ideas, and concerns to the PLIC lawyers and to the PLIC board. No ‘red lights’ this time 😉 I hear.

Since Lummi Islanders seem to be hopelessly negligent about “note taking” I hope hope you will be there!

As you said, you may have been wrong on one front, but the information you researched and shared with the general public helped both the County and the Lummi Nation realize that it all could go on forever, based upon some previous legal actions. None of us want that limbo state!

Anyhow, thanks for your observations - I think you helped make a difference.


Tip Johnson

Feb 06, 2010

I would like to state that I attended the meeting solely out of my own interests, both personal and political, and not at the request of any individual or group.  I have expressed the jist of my political interests in several articles, but would like to disclose my personal interests for the sake of transparency.

My partner has family property on the island at Sunrise Cove. I enjoy coming and going between Fairhaven and the cove during the season in our Rhodes 19, powered by wind, paddles and oar.  As conditions allow, I especially enjoy making the trip through Portage Bay, dodging the bars and skipping over the portage with centerboard and rudder retracted.

I enjoy holidays and gatherings with a dozen or more extended family relations on the island.  I appreciate access to the island by ferry, especially for occasions like Thanksgiving and Christmas when boating would likely be unpleasant. Knowing these folks gives me a good understanding of the ferry’s importance to them for their work and providing for their families.

I have no financial interests in property or business on the island.


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