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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...