The Saxman Clan House.

The Saxman Clan House.

The Organized Village of Saxman filed a lawsuit July 25 in federal court over the Federal Subsistence Board’s 2007 decision to designate the Tlingit Native village as non-rural.

Calling the decision, and the criteria used to reach it, “arbitrary and capricious,” the complaint asks the court to reverse that 2007 Subsistence Board decision, declare it invalid and award court costs to the Village of Saxman.

According to the complaint, residents of Saxman have continually engaged in traditional subsistence gathering since the community first was settled in the late 1800s.

And until 2007, the U.S. government considered the village rural, at least for subsistence purposes. In 1990, the Federal Subsistence Board ruled that Saxman was a rural community, even though the village and its residents have close ties to non-rural Ketchikan.

The board initiated a review of rural designations in 2000, and six years later published a proposed rule that kept Saxman rural. Here is Matthew Newman, an attorney with the Anchorage Native American Rights Fund, which is representing Saxman.

“They had a public comment period on that rule. They received overwhelming public testimony in support of that rule. In fact, their own staff at the office of Federal Subsistence Management supported maintaining Saxman as a rural community,” he said. “Then, somewhat unannounced and immediately, the board decided to vote and go in the opposite direction.”

That decision became final on June 6, 2007. Newman said the board didn’t offer an explanation for voting against the proposed rule.

Within a month of that decision, Saxman officials asked for reconsideration.

“The board took the request under advisement. They reviewed it for a full year,” he said. “But then their final denial of the request for reconsideration also didn’t contain any reason or any plausible argument as to why they took the action they did.”

The lawsuit argues that the criteria used to group Saxman with the larger community of Ketchikan denies Saxman residents the ability to continue customary and traditional harvests, and fails to account for the economic, social and communal independence of Saxman.

Newman said that Saxman waited until now to file the lawsuit in hopes of an administrative solution. And the subsistence board just a couple of months ago indicated it could reverse that ruling for Saxman.

However, Newman said, this year marks the deadline for the community to legally challenge that 2007 ruling. If the Subsistence Board does reverse it, the lawsuit could be dropped. But, “given Saxman’s experiences with the administrative process so far, the board will have to take some very affirmative steps.”

David Jenkins, policy coordinator with the Federal Subsistence Management Service, also noted that the Federal Subsistence Board is in the process of recommending changes. It would then be up to the federal government whether to accept those recommendations.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason. The defendants named are Federal Subsistence Board chairman Tim Towarak, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

The defendants have 60 days to file a response.

(This article has been updated since its original posting to add comments from David Jenkins.)