Lawsuit could endanger land trust plan from Ninilchik tribe
More than six years ago, the Ninilchik Traditional Council applied to place a two-and-a-half acre, two-building bus depot into trust with the federal government. They’re still waiting on a final decision.
But if the application goes through, it would essentially create a reservation in Ninilchik. The tribe would have jurisdiction over the land, which would likely be exempt from local taxation. It would also open the tribe up to certain federal money and programs. Darrel Williams, the resource and environmental director for the tribe, said it would protect the future of the bus service the tribe runs from that property.
“We thought it was important to have this service in the first place,” Williams said. “We’ve been running it for quite a while now, and it’s one of those things that we see growing in the future, not necessarily getting smaller.”
But the State of Alaska has filed a lawsuit against the secretary of the Interior, arguing the land into trust process as a whole undermines the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act by creating reservations.
The lawsuit was filed last month, on Jan. 17, after the Interior Department approved putting an 800 square foot vacant lot into trust in Juneau. The lawsuit argues that the trust affects the state’s ability to tax, enforce public safety and engage in resource management.
The lawsuit also says the state is aware of the Ninilchik application, and that it, “further jeopardize[s] the State of Alaska’s sovereign authority.”
The Ninilchik property in question is the hub for a bus system run by the tribe, called the Basic Unified Multi-Path Service, or BUMPS.
BUMPS first opened in 2018 and provides transportation for people who can’t drive — not just tribal members, but anyone on the peninsula. It runs three days a week between Homer and the Kenai-Soldotna area. Years ago, the tribe recognized a gap in transportation services in the borough, and stepped in to solve the problem. Williams said the application to put the transit building into trust is designed to protect that service for the foreseeable future.
“We figured that there are enough people who are disadvantaged, for one reason or another — they might be sick, they might have gotten in trouble, whatever the case is, they probably shouldn’t be driving — that it’s a benefit to everybody,” he said.
Williams said some of the tribe's other services, like the health clinics they run, are tied up with outside organizations, like the Indian Health Service. But BUMPS is run entirely by the tribe, and seemed like an appropriate service to protect when the tribe learned of the federal trust process.
Land into trust has been possible in Alaska since 2014, when the Obama administration revised a restriction that had existed for more than 30 years. Under Donald Trump that revision was withdrawn, but the Interior Department reopened the process again in late 2022. The department agreed to take the Juneau tribal land into trust last month.
Williams thinks the state’s lawsuit will take years to sort out, but ultimately, he doesn’t think they’ll prevail.
“When the state can file a suit and stop a federal process, that’s a problem,” he said.
The state’s department of law did not return a request for comment before air time.
When it comes to the state’s motivations for protesting the land-into-trust process, Williams thinks it comes down to the state not wanting to share their roles in providing services or managing resources.
“One of the things that’s always bothered me when the state takes opposition to things like this: this brings in more money, more jobs, more revenue, more economy to the entire state,” Williams said. “Why would they be against that?”
The lawsuit also cites pending applications from the Native Village of Fort Yukon and the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes.