A tribe that takes the high road

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

It was the discovery of silver and gold in the hills above Lake Coeur d'Alene that finally pushed the Coeur d'Alene Indians onto a reservation in the 1870s. Now it is the tribe - small, at just 1,450 members - that is pushing back against mining, and that is making some people uncomfortable.

In a letter to the Idaho Conservation League last February, Matthew Fein, who represents the mining companies, said environmentalists shouldn't be "duped" by the tribe's efforts to clean up pollution in the Silver Valley.

"The Tribe is involved in this issue for one reason only - money," he wrote. "It serves their interest to prolong the fight so they can continue to receive millions in taxpayer money studying issues forever."

Mining officials note that the tribe has received millions from the Department of Interior to fund research projects, while touching little of the monies it has amassed from its successful gambling operations.

Others criticize the tribe for putting on a green facade. Kootenai County Commissioner Bob MacDonald says the tribe "talks environmental, but it doesn't act it. Some of their own farmlands don't use best management practices and have lots of erosion. That pollution ends up in the lake."

Members of the tribal council say that any money they get from lawsuits will go exclusively toward cleanup activities.

Coeur d'Alene biologist Phil Cernera, who has worked for other tribes in the region, says the Coeur d'Alene tribe is "head and shoulders above most tribes. The tribal council is well-educated and trusts its staff. They've taken the high road on this thing."

"The tribe has always tackled tough issues," echoes Bob Bostwick, a public relations specialist the tribe hired five years ago. Bostwick notes that the tribe owns and operates a medical center, a gambling casino, a 6,000-acre farm and a shopping center. In the past 25 years, its staff has grown from three to 350.

"With our progressive leadership," he says, "there's not much you feel like you can't accomplish."

One potentially giant accomplishment still waiting on the horizon is a bid to assert ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene, along with some 20 miles of the lower river up to the town of Cataldo. A tribal lawsuit brought in 1993 contends that President Ulysses S. Grant gave the lake to the tribe in an 1873 executive order establishing the reservation.

The state of Idaho maintains that Grant had no right to give away the lake without congressional approval, and that the state assumed ownership of all waterways when Idaho became a state in 1890.

The courts have yet to rule on the case's merits. At issue is whether the tribe even has the right to sue the state in federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on that point in October and is expected to rule sometime next year.

Bostwick says the tribe would never have brought the lawsuit over ownership if the mining companies and the state and federal governments had taken better care of the river and the lake.

Despite the tribe's insistence on ownership and a comprehensive cleanup, Bostwick says it doesn't seek to destroy the Silver Valley's remaining mining industry, which employs 500 people.

"The tribe might be the best friends the mining companies have," he says. "A few years ago, we went to Congress and said, "The mining companies need help; they can't fund this cleanup by themselves."

"But allowing the industry to avoid any payment at all is unacceptable."

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