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Tyonek protests inclusion in Nikiski planning commission

The view across Cook Inlet from Nikiski.
Riley Board
The view across Cook Inlet from Nikiski.

A new land planning group based in Nikiski is getting pushback from a Native village and corporation on the other side of Cook Inlet, which say they don’t want to be a part of it.

Advisory Planning Commissions, or APCs, provide an avenue for residents to weigh in on land use decisions in their communities. Nikiski didn’t have one until last fall, when residents proposed an APC that encompassed millions of acres on the opposite, west side of Cook Inlet, including the Native village of Tyonek — making the area 10 times larger than any other borough APC. The assembly sided with the residents and approved the large map, even after the borough’s planning department suggested keeping the map to just the east side.

This 3.5 million acre proposal for a Nikiski advisory planning commission has strong support among Nikiski residents. Borough Planning Commissioners and the Borough Assembly aren't as supportive.
Courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Borough
The approved boundaries of the Nikiski APC.

Absent from those discussions were residents of Tyonek. That was until October, when the assembly received a letter on behalf of the remote community, signed by the Native village president Johann Bartles and Native corporation CEO Stephen Peskosky. The authors objected to the idea that Tyonek falls within Nikiski’s area of influence and criticized the borough’s failure to notify anyone in Tyonek about its formation.

Peskosky said the commission, as is, does not represent the community. None of the seven members on the APC today are from Tyonek, and none of the nearly 50 signatures on the original petition were from full-time west-side residents.

“When I look at the land that’s represented in the APC, 75 to 90% of the land is on the west side, but 100% of the people petitioning and sitting on the APC are from Kenai or Nikiski,” Peskosky said. “I think this is inappropriate representation.”

Nikiski APC petitioners based the boundaries on the current boundaries of the Nikiski Fire Service Area and Senior Service area. However, in their letter, Bartles and Peskosky call these “hollow references of support” and write that these services on the west side and in Tyonek “pale in comparison to the resources and services provided in Nikiski.”

Robert Ruffner is the borough’s planning director. He said this is the first time he’s seen a community within an APC ask to withdraw. But he said it’s also the first time the boundaries of a proposed APC haven’t exactly followed the outline of a unified community — a factor in determining boundaries for a commission.

“The advisory planning commissions previously have been pretty focused around a community that is pretty unified in their self-determination,” he said.

This isn’t the first time Nikiski residents have pushed for recognition of boundaries that include the west side. In 2016, hundreds of Nikiski residents petitioned to incorporate Nikiski as its own city, but the borough denied the petition, partially because the plan included Tyonek, which as a Native village could not be incorporated into a city.

This alternative version of the APC map was created by the Borough Planning Commission.
Courtesy of the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
This alternative version of the APC map was created by the Borough Planning Commission.

Tyonek’s letter spurred a reconsideration of the larger boundaries at a Feb. 7 borough assembly meeting. And residents of Nikiski showed up to defend the map, as is.

“East side, west side and Cook Inlet, it’s all interconnected in a way that you can’t dissect it and rip it apart without ripping apart the entire community,” Jason Ross, chair of the Nikiski APC, said. “And just because a small portion of a group of people don’t want to be a part of it doesn’t mean we need to cut out the whole rest of it.”

Several speakers characterized the west side as “Nikiski’s backyard” and a recreation area for Nikiski residents. One petitioner talked about owning a hunting lodge on the west side and spending time hunting there.

Some, like Lenora Neisen, also pointed out the ways that Nikiski and Tyonek are connected through the oil industry. The Alaska LNG project, for example, would run through Tyonek on its way to Nikiski.

“When you think of Nikiski, you think of oil and gas,” Neisen said. “It’s what we’re about, and everything that has to do with that affects Nikiski. It was distressing to me when I saw that this ordinance cuts us off at the shoreline.”

Ruffner, the planning director, said an APC will occasionally weigh in on items related to the oil and gas industry, like approving permits for pipelines or gravel pits. But he said many industry-related projects are not greenlit at the borough level.

During debate about the ordinance, Assembly President Brent Johnson pointed out that Tyonek residents not only live on the west side year round, but their ancestors have, too, for hundreds of years. He said in light of the letter, he would not support the larger boundaries.

“I believe in local government and that government should conform to the people that live in an area more than anything else, and these are the people who live in this area,” he said.

The assembly was split on whether to make the map smaller, with the vote ending in a tie, and will reconsider the boundaries at its next meeting, on Feb. 21.

Peskosky, with the Native corporation, was disappointed in the outcome of the vote. He said he still strongly supports reducing the size of the APC and rejects the claim that there is a cultural and historical link between Tyonek and Nikiski, or that the west side falls in Nikiski’s “cone of influence.”

And he said while the area might be a vacation spot for Nikiski residents, it’s where people from Tyonek have been subsistence hunting and fishing for hundreds of years.

“People from the east side vacation, they recreate, they hunt, they fish on the west side,” he said. “Well that’s great, but that doesn’t give you the right to start to form legislative concepts and ideas for an area where you vacation.”

Peskosky said for the most part, people who reside in Tyonek still don’t know much about the APC. But he said a grassroots effort to protest the west side inclusion in the APC is forming, and says the borough assembly can expect testimony from Tyonek residents ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. Dozens of Tyonek residents and several Native entities have already submitted letters in support.

Riley Board is a Report For America reporter covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula for KDLL.
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