Tribe wins a third of a lake

  • Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation

    Diane Sylvain
  A big chunk of Lake Coeur d'Alene, the crown jewel of the Idaho Panhandle tourism industry, is once again owned by the people that share its name.

In late July, a federal court ruled that the 1,450-member Coeur d'Alene Indian tribe owns the lake bed and banks of the southern third of the lake, as well as 20 miles of the St. Joe River, all of which fall within the boundaries of the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation.

"The tribe's ancestral leaders were always very protective of this lake," said tribal spokesman Bob Bostwick. "They are now looking down with pride upon the modern generation."

The lawsuit was brought against the state of Idaho by the U.S. Department of Justice and the tribe in 1994. The state hasn't yet announced whether it will appeal. Another suit, filed by the tribe in 1990, is still pending. It calls for tribal jurisdiction over the entire lake, which is anything but pristine.

The lake and a lengthy section of the Coeur d'Alene River contain about 75 million tons of sediment contaminated with heavy metals that have leached from abandoned hardrock mines upstream (HCN, 11/25/96). It's too early to tell how the court's decision will affect the cleanup at the lake, but tribal officials say they'll confer with members of the Salish and Kootenai tribes, who took control of the southern half of Flathead Lake in western Montana after a similar federal court decision in 1982. The two tribes now regulate lakeshore development, oversee law enforcement, sell fishing and boating licenses and monitor water quality on Flathead Lake.

For now, life on Lake Coeur d'Alene shouldn't change. Homeowners and boaters attracted to its cool waters won't see any new rules soon, tribal Chairman Ernie Stensgar told the Spokane Spokesman-Review.

"We realized, over the past 200 years," he said, "how it feels to be treated unfairly by another government."

*Mark Matthews