Lake dispute reaches high-water mark - Tribal inventory riles dock owners along Lake Coeur d'Alene, St. Joe River
ST. MARIES, Idaho _ To the guys in the boat on the St. Joe River it was simple: swing the hammer and nail an inventory placard to the end of a dock.
But some dock owners along the river found the act simply outrageous, prompting calls to the Benewah County prosecutor and the state attorney general's office in Boise.
That's because the boat and the inventory tags bear the logo of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe.
Tension in eastern Benewah County has been increasing ever since the the U.S. Supreme Court granted the tribe ownership of the southern third of Lake Coeur d'Alene and the St. Joe River up to the city of St. Maries in 2001.
Staffers in the tribe's Lake Management Department have spent all summer tagging docks in what are now tribal waters.
Essentially it has been a change in landlords. The Idaho Department of Lands used to monitor and regulate docks in the lower third of the lake. Now it's the tribe's job.
"This is pretty benign," said Robert Matt, director of the tribe's Lake Management Department. He said the tribe is simply taking routine inventory.
"Maybe the whole difference is it is Indians doing it instead of white people," said tribal attorney Howard Funke.
Some property owners challenge the tribe's authority to regulate non-tribal members, even contending their land is no longer a part of the Coeur d'Alene Reservation.
It is common to hear the phrases, "the former reservation" and "the old reservation" used in eastern Benewah County, where the majority of residents are non-tribal members.
"To me, they have no right to do what they are doing," said Lois Tuel, who lives along the St. Joe.
Tuel was among the residents calling for legal advice after docks were tagged along the river this week.
"No question, hostilities are reaching a crescendo," Benewah County Prosecutor Doug Payne said Thursday.
Along with the usual array of criminal case files, Thursday saw Payne's desk covered with old federal deeds as he searched for firm legal footing on issues of ownership in areas of shifting water levels.
Some people contend the tribe's authority is limited to a lake pool elevation of 2,121 feet -- common before dams were constructed -- and not the current summer pool level of 2,128 feet.
Tribal officials point out the Supreme Court justices were clear that current levels apply with their ruling of "ordinary high water mark."
The ruling on tribal waters "is pretty clear. We believe it is cut and dry," Matt said. "There are folks out there trying to find loopholes."
With the tagging of the docks this week, litigation or negotiation is imminent, Payne said. "Something's got to give."
The "give point" is a Dec. 31 deadline for owners of docks or other shoreline encroachments to buy a permit from the tribe.
The tribe has set an annual fee of $100 for a single-slip dock, more for larger structures.
This is a steep increase from state fees.
"The primary reason for that is that the state can use taxes, but the tribe has to fund its lake management program from the permit fees," Funke said.
The tribe intends to use all the money for water quality improvement, tribal officials have said.
Matt sees the higher fees as a major source of tension.
Tuel sees tension arising from the sense of property owners that they will have no voice in tribal decision-making.
All sides agree they need to get together and talk.
But even that is contentious.
"So far we have received very little communication from the tribe on water issues." Payne said.
For the last year-and-a-half, Matt countered, the tribe has held open a seat for a second non-tribal member -- one specifically from eastern Benewah County -- to sit on the Lake Management Board.
"The county has chosen not to fill it," Matt said.
Matt said the tribe has suggested discussing differences with the county.
Payne said he thinks it is important for the state, county and tribe to begin talking before tension gets worse.
"At some point we've got to call a time out and take a deep breath," he said. "Little by little, distrust has developed."
Payne said the agencies need to step up before animosities become personal.
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