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Tribe honored for strides in managing the Coeur d’Alene watershed


Phillip Cernera, Marlene Sproul, Gina Baughn, Ernie Stensgar and Howard Funke receive the award for cleanup efforts.

Long before the Schitsu’Umsh people, now called the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, encountered European and American traders, trappers and settlers in the 1800s, they managed, cared for and lived in harmony with the sacred lands and waters of the Coeur d’Alene Lake and River Basin.

Particularly over the last 25 years, the tribe has sought to re-establish their ability to protect, restore and clean the waters and lands of their homeland that were polluted by a century of mining, logging, farming and construction. 

From the 1880s to 1980s, mining and smelting in the Silver Valley dumped 100 million tons of waste—metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc—into the watershed, contaminating sediments on the lake’s bottom.

In 1991, the Tribal Council filed two lawsuits:

• One was against the State of Idaho to re-establish the tribe’s sovereignty over the lake so it could address environmental problems the state had neglected.

• The other, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA), sought $3 billion for injury to natural resources from release of hazardous substances, to force restoration of the Coeur d’Alene watershed—the lake, the river, its tributaries, chain lakes and parts of the Spokane River. 

The lawsuits began years of litigation, and eventually the Tribe prevailed in both. In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the tribe has always been the owner of the lower third of the lake and related waters.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe worked with the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and others to develop, implement and update a Lake Management Plan.

At the “Winter Waters” ceremony in March, the Upper Columbia Group of the Sierra Club and Center for Environmental Law and Policy recognized the tribe as “Watershed Heroes.”

Several spoke of the tribe’s efforts:

• Lutheran Bishop Martin Wells recognized their “prophetic environmental stewardship, persistence in this work and their promise to be invested in renewal of the land so long as the tribe exists.”

• Glen Ford and Greg Abrahamson of the Spokane Tribal Council said the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has stricter water restrictions than the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

• Catholic Bishop Emeritus William Skylstad said the tribe is “a witness to our vision and hope that as we strive to heal and make whole the wounds of the past, we strive for God’s kingdom of justice, peace and sustainability.”

• D.R. Michel, director of the Upper Columbia United Tribes (UCUT), said, “Tribal issues are everyone’s issues. Tribes are out front to bring back what they had for thousands of years.”  He is concerned the new U.S. Administration may make care of water, air, land and animals harder.

• Tom Soeldner, president of the Sierra Club Group said the tribe has done extraordinary work not just for themselves but for everyone.

• John Osborn, also of the Sierra Club, said, “There would be no cleanup or hope for protecting the watershed from mining pollution without the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.”

Bishop Martin Wells and Coeur d'Alene tribal members at Winter Waters

Martin, who is bishop of the Eastern Washington Idaho Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, gave an overview of the Coeur d’Alene’s experience, beginning with being renamed “Coeur d’Alenes” —rather than Schitsu’Umsh, their word for “the people who were found here”—and then being overrun by settlers.

Mining and logging used the watershed “as toilets to flush away the refuse of production,” he said. 

The most dramatic damage is still visible in the Silver Valley in the 21-square-mile Superfund site where clean-up has been under way since lawsuits and settlements against the mines and railroad in the mid-1980s and 1990s.

The waterborne heavy metals didn’t stay in place, Martin said. The North Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River runs fast in spring runoff or is flooded because of clear-cut forests to the north. It merges west of the mining valley with residue in the South Fork of the river.  Together it overwhelms wetlands and flows south and west through the chain-lakes area of the lower 20 miles of the river and into one of the most pristine lakes in the world, Lake Coeur d’Alene, at the heartland of the people, he described.

Now millions of tons of toxic mining waste coat the lake’s bottom.  Waste is also funneled down the river into smaller lakes, known as “the killing fields,” where birds and wildlife die, smothered in lead waste or from eating fish, he said.

“The beautiful recreation land and lake are in travail, groaning as floods and fertilizers mobilize the bottom waste and send it down the Spokane River, down Lake Roosevelt, down the Columbia where it joins the toxic wasteland of the Hanford Reservation, sending its water down the Columbia Gorge and finally to join the great, growing stewpot of the Pacific Ocean where there is no deeper bottom to this bottom-of-the-barrel reality of human defilement,” Martin said.

In accepting the recognition for the tribe, Ernie Stensgar, vice chair of the Coeur d’Alene Tribal Council, said lake cleanup is part of the legacy of elders. 

“We have been water fighters for a long time,” he said.  “Water is life.  UCUT is a major partner working with us to care for our families, children and the future.  We work for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and future generations. In Indian country, we care for the seventh generation.

“The way for some funding opened,” he said, “but there is need for more.  Idaho dropped the ball in cleaning up the lake, so we picked it up.”

Ernie remembers listening to the late Lawrence Aripa tell of fishing in the river as a boy and talking with his grandfather who lived beside the St.  Joe River.

“He told us how pristine the water was.  It was clean enough to drink from springs,” said Ernie.

“Legends were passed on.  We are put here to care for the land and to care for one another,” he said. “We are to be the vision and heart for the people.”

“Seeing the swans die and the cancer on fish, we do not eat the fish,” said Ernie, expressing the tribe’s hope to again have the lake pristine so he may one day take his great grandson fishing and be able to eat the fish.

Ernie is grateful to work with scientists in the tribe’s land and lake management departments. He acknowledged the support of Phillip Cernera, director of the Tribes Lake Management Department, and Howard Funke, an attorney working on issues related to the Superfund, natural resource damage, the lake case and water rights adjudication.

As experts, they give advice and sit with them in Washington, D.C. as they meet with federal officials and in Boise as they meet with state leaders to continue the fight to clean the lake and river. 

“Clean and clear water is the lifeblood of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, which educates people about the damage in the Silver Valley and the need to clean up,” Ernie said.

Online sources give overview of damage, progress

Information on the Idaho DEQ and Coeur d’Alene Tribal websites, and in a report by Elan Ebling, outreach and development coordinator for CELP, give additional insights on the damage and progress.

Mining, logging and farming practices brought wealth for a few, jobs for some and left a legacy of negative natural resource impacts for all, said Elan.

In 1929, the Coeur d’Alene River flowed milky-white with waste, according to the Idaho DEQ. Until 1968, tailings were deposited directly in the river and washed or blown over 150 miles.

The lake’s water quality improved after mining ended in the mid-1970s and the EPA began to remediate areas around the former smelter in the 1980s.

When the Silver Valley became the nation’s second largest Superfund site, cleanup was estimated at $200 million just for the portion of the basin called the 21-mile “box.” The tribe, estimated that more than $3 billion would be needed, and filed lawsuits in 1991.

The tribe initially became involved in cleanup, working informally with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Wildlife Department, Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Geological Survey and then working through formal agreements with the EPA.

With the tribe’s “oversight and incessant urging of the EPA process,” Elan said the cleanup plan was “greatly increased.” To date, the EPA has spent more than $600 million and still has to clean up the lower 20 miles of the river, chain lakes, wetlands and lake.

In 1995, the tribe, Idaho DEQ and others developed the Lake Management Plan on water quality, management practices and educating people.  The plan had support but lacked funding and enforcement.

EPA studies from 1998 to 2002 indicated the metal sediments could not be removed from the lake and had to be managed in place by limiting nutrients entering the lake. Phosphorus and nitrogen runoff increase plant and algae growth, and decrease water clarity and dissolved oxygen levels.

The tribe and Idaho DEQ updated the Lake Management Plan in 2009 to limit nutrient inputs that affect the solubility of sediments. 

Elan listed other management programs: fisheries, water rights, dam licensing, wildlife protection, air quality, water resources, hazardous-waste, shoreline protection, forestry and fire management, pesticide enforcement, residential/commercial development, storm-water runoff, wastewater treatment and recreation use, such as power boating.

For information, call Ernie Stensgar at 208-686-1800 or CELP at 206-829-8299, or visit or

Copyright © May 2017 - The Fig Tree