The Creator owns the lake, but he put the Coeur d'Alenes here to take care of it
In the early summer of 1991, the Coeur d'Alene Tribal Council took a stand. Council members fought back tears as they decided to file a lawsuit and force the restoration of the Coeur d'Alene watershed, including the Coeur d'Alene River and its tributaries, Lake Coeur d'Alene, the so-called lateral or chain lakes nearby and portions of the Spokane River.
They shed tears for the lake, the river, and the monumental task ahead. It would mean years of struggle over ownership and over terrible environmental damage.
Thus began the Coeur d'Alene Basin Restoration Project and the largest natural resource damage lawsuit in American history.
Over a 100 year period, the mining industry in Idaho's Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d'Alene watershed. The State of Idaho, meanwhile, looked the other way. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d'Alene River was wiped out. In 1929, as the river flowed milky-white with mine waste, a Coeur d'Alene newspaper reporter described a river trip to the Silver Valley as "Up the River of Muck and into the Valley of Death."
Today, the Silver Valley is the nation's second largest Superfund site. The natural resource damages, however, extend upstream and far downstream from the 21-square mile "box" that is now under Superfund.
The Superfund cleanup is expected to cost $120 million. The tribe's natural resource damage assessment for the river, its tributaries, the lateral lakes and Lake Coeur d'Alene totals over $1 billion. The tribe, working with the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department, The Bureau of Land Management and The U.S. Geological Survey, has taken the leading role in cleanup efforts and the leading role toward responsible stewardship of the basin.
The tribe is taking its case to court not only with a plea for environmental stewardship, but also with detailed and peer-reviewed science. The issue has become the Interior Department's number one priority for cleanup. The Justice Department followed the tribe's lead and the United States government filed suit against the mines and Union Pacific Railroad in the spring of 1996, echoing almost verbatim the tribe's 1991 lawsuit.
As the tribe works to create a basin cleanup, it also works to resolve ownership of Lake Coeur d'Alene. A lawsuit filed in October of 1991 against the State of Idaho would enable the tribe to take the state into court and eventually prevent the state from interfering with tribal juristiction over Lake Coeur d'Alene, which is the heart of the tribe's homeland and reservation.
Tribal leadership is convinced by recent history and environmental neglect that the Coeur d'Alene Tribe is the last best hope for the future health of the lake and, therefore, the economy of the region.
In these lawsuits, the tribe is applying its sovereignty and its commitment to environmental restoration.
"If we control the lake, we can clean it up," said Henry SiJohn, tribal council member, tribal elder and the council's environmental liaison. "We do what we do for the future of this lake and for the future of this region. We do it not just for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, but for everybody."
The tribe's quest to resolve ownership was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in October of 1996.