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Tribal project will improve navigation on disputed waters

PLUMMER, Idaho -- A river that flows between three lakes is a confounding
sight to behold from the banks of Chatcolet Lake on the Coeur d'Alene
reservation: it's difficult to determine where the riverbanks end and the
lakes begin, especially when the water is high and the expanse looks like
one large body of water with a string of cottonwood trees growing up
through its center. The phenomenon results from artificially high water
levels caused by a dam at Post Falls.

Negotiating the St. Joe River's submerged banks and hazards has proven
challenging for some of the 45,000 boaters who annually access the channel
where it meets Coeur d'Alene Lake just north of the other three lakes.
Powerboat users share the scenic waterway with tugboats that pull booms of
bundled logs from St. Maries to Coeur d'Alene, and with cruise boats full
of sightseers.

"The pilings do not clearly define the channel and present a significant
safety hazard at night," said Phil Cernera, director of the Coeur d'Alene
Tribe's department of lake management. "Boats run aground on submerged
berms that line the passage, and people have a hard time following the
navigable channel."

To remedy the situation, the tribe will provide $47,000 for navigational
aids to clearly define the last two miles of the river and lake access
points. That entails removing rotten, broken and leaning pilings along the
edges of the channel and replacing them according to Coast Guard
regulations. Sixty-six standing pilings and 44 broken ones will either be
pushed over with a tugboat or sawed off underwater before new navigational
aids with lights and signs are installed.

The project spans a dividing line between officially recognized tribal
waters and adjacent Heyburn State Park, where ownership of submerged land
is disputed.

In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that the lakes and the St. Joe
River, within the reservation's exterior boundaries, belong to the Coeur
d'Alene Tribe and not the state of Idaho, which had claimed jurisdiction
for more than 100 years. However, ownership of the park's waters, which are
also on the reservation, has not been resolved to the tribe's satisfaction.
The center of the river marks the boundary between the two areas.

Nevertheless, the tribe and park have agreed to cooperate on a number of
programs. In this case, the tribe will pay for improvements on both sides
of the river, with the park pledging 50 hours of donated help. The money
will come from fuel taxes collected on the reservation and a settlement
awarded to the tribe for natural resources damages associated with mining
pollution in the Coeur d'Alene River basin.

The tribe originally sought funding through a grant from the state, which
required endorsement from representatives of the park and Benewah County,
where that section of river is located. Park Manager Fred Bear readily lent
his support.

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"In the summertime, there is a boat going up and down on busy days just
about every 30 seconds," Bear said. "Boaters will appreciate the
improvements."

A letter of endorsement he wrote refers to collaboration on similar
projects involving the parks department, Idaho Fish and Game and
surrounding counties. Kootenai County to the north expressed appreciation
for the tribe's initiative. But the program stalled last winter after
Benwah County commissioners, who resist the concept of tribal sovereignty,
refused to endorse it, citing liability concerns.

"It never got beyond Benewah County, so it never got to the park for their
review," Cernera said, referring to the design proposed by lake ecologist
Dave Lamb. "Dave wouldn't give up, though. It's important to the community
and boater safety."

The tribal council subsequently agreed to provide the funds.

In addition to solid pilings and lights, new signs will replace a
hodgepodge of faded small ones affixed to the dilapidated poles. Boaters
will be greeted with a welcome sign with information about tribal history
and the significance of the area to the Coeur d'Alene people, not the least
of which is an interest in protecting habitat for cutthroat trout, the
Northwest's largest concentration of nesting osprey, and eagles who find
attractive perches in what remains of the threatened stand of cottonwoods.

Dam operations cause high summer water levels that flood wetlands and erode
the natural levees that flank the river, causing trees to wash away.

The Lake Management Department is tasked with responding to these and a
host of other challenges while preserving access for recreational users who
flock to the area in increasing numbers during the summer. River navigation
is just one of their concerns.

"As we see it, it's one of many lake improvement projects we're going to be
initiating," Cernera said.