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Roads Jurisdiction on the Rez Becomes Sovereignty Issue

Updated: Mar 16, 2023

By Joe Morey

News Editor


At a February LCO Tribal Governing Board (TGB) meeting, further discussions took place regarding Sawyer County’s proposed ATV/UTV ordinance which passed through the Public Works Committee and awaits a vote by the full Sawyer County Board. At issue is the designation of roads for ATV/UTV use within the LCO Reservation exterior boundary without consulting or seeking approval of the TGB.


Also at issue, according to a statement issued by the Tribe on Monday, March 13, is local township’s assertions of civil jurisdiction, road ownership and right of ways within the exterior boundaries of the reservation.


“In many instances, Local Town Board and County officials have disregarded or flouted Lac Courte Oreilles (LCO) Tribal Sovereignty and Federal law by asserting their perceived civil jurisdiction on roads listed within their respective road inventories,” the statement reads.


According to LCO Secretary-Treasurer Tweed Shuman, who also serves as the Sawyer County Board Chairman, both of these issues comes down to jurisdiction over roads within the reservation boundaries.


In a news article last year, the TGB cited its opposition to local Townships and Sawyer County opening up the roads within the LCO Boundary to all ATV/UTV access because of safety concerns in the tribal communities, damage to tribal property, and lack of protection of sacred sites.


The current statement from the TGB also states that once the County and Townships began opening road routes for recreational use without TGB consultation or input, they started receiving a high volume of tribal member complaints of noise and trespassing as these roads go right through some of the communities.


LCO Conservation Director, Brian Bisonette, said there are some roads that Townships have legal right of way, but there are some they don’t and they just asserted that they own them.


“On Nov. 30, 2020, I requested information on all patents held on Reservation roads. In 2017, I drafted a letter for patents on five roads, including Gurno Lake and Indian Lake. I did another letter on Feb. 5 of this year. It’s going on 6 years now and our patience is wearing thin.”


LCO TGB member Michelle Beaudin said she also sent a letter as a follow up and received no correspondence.


Beaudin also said she helped the Land Management and Roads directors with help in creating a listing of the roads to get them on our inventory when she helped with applying for a state emergency funding from the weather in December. For that funding, the Tribe had to provide a roads list.


“We as a Tribal Governing Board still plan on taking over our roads within the boundaries,” Beaudin added.


“Local townships are making decisions on our Reservation roads and the issue needs to be addressed,” Bisonette stated. “We won’t allow our sovereignty to be infringed by local townships.”


LCO Attorney General, James Schlender Jr., said similar issues have occurred at the Lac du Flambeau Tribe which resulted in the Tribe putting up blockades on several roads.


“Our TGB is aware of the LDF situation and we don’t want to go to those extremes but it’s not off the table,” Schlender stated. “All the roads and highways are just right of ways to go through someone’s property. It just gives legal permission for someone to use it. We still have the authority. They don’t have exclusive regulatory control.”


Schlender said we need to recognize this is a systemic problem.


“We need a provision that states we are not waiting for permission, and we are putting you on notice,” Schlender said to the TGB in their February meeting.


LCO Chairman Louis Taylor stated that all roads remain closed within the LCO boundaries until the Townships can establish they have proper jurisdiction.


“Following Lac du Flambeau, we’ll also put up obstacles to prevent further trespass,” the Chairman stated.


Although there has been some dialogue between the TGB and local municipalities, they have to come to an agreement on the routes that best provides for the health and safety of tribal members, the Chairman added.


As of yet, the draft County ordinance, nor Townships, provides for the safety and wellbeing of the Members.


Schlender said Townships are presuming they have jurisdiction but until they have a document that settles the right of way, they don’t have that jurisdiction.


Schlender also noted the amended tribal ordinance designates which routes are open for ATV/UTV access.


“We agreed with Bass Lake. Their residents can use the public roads to get from their house to the trails. We are amenable to that,” Schlender stated about the Northwoods Beach area.


“When you enter the Reservation, you enter a different jurisdiction and you have to follow tribal regulations,” Schlender stated. “Show us proof and until you do, we assert ownership jurisdiction.”


Draft County Ordinance


At issue with the proposed county ordinance is the opening of county roads to ATV/UTV access without tribal consultation.


Those county roads include County E from the junction of Hwy K to Reserve Road, which would include tribal communities Skunawong and Reserve; County H from Blueberry Fire Lane to Blueberry Avenue; County K from the junction of Hwy E to Hwy KK which would include Northwoods Beach; County N from NN to CC which would include Six Mile; County NN from N to Gurno Lake Road; County CC from Flowage Road to Hwy B which would include New Post; and finally, County CC from N to Conger Road.


Schlender said the Tribe is opposed to this draft county ordinance. He told the TGB that the County isn’t even asking the Tribe anymore. He said the County needs to recognize the Tribe has their own ordinance.


Town Roads Jurisdiction


After passing a resolution last year to amend the Tribal ATV/UTV ordinance, the following information from the meeting was printed in a previous LCO News article.


After several years of the Tribe asking townships to show ownership of the roads within the Boundary, Schlender said we need to stop asking them to prove ownership and just assert our ownership.


“Let them take us to court,” Schlender told the TGB.


Bisonette added that we have asked for a jurisdictional transfer, but asked why the Tribe should do that when they haven’t been able to prove ownership.


“We decide what happens on our Reservation,” Bisonette stated. “It’s about our Sovereignty.”


Bisonette said they have requested to town managers if they have recorded deeds of ownership over a handful of town roads on the rez, but they haven’t shown any yet.


In a meeting with the TGB in November of 2020, Nita Kemp, Director of LCO Realty Services, told the TGB that the townships do not possess the original patents issued by the BIA for roads through Indian lands, yet claim them on their inventory and receive federal transportation aid on a quarterly or annual basis. She said she’s asked the BIA to do a records search of these patents.


Kemp said a couple of the chairman’s of townships extending into the Reservation have expressed interest in turning over their roads to the Tribe. Although some claim to have spent a lot of money on the roads, Kemp said they are compensated for that.


There is concern that we’d block access to these roads but Kemp said that’s not the Tribe’s intention.


“The Tribe needs to get their roads back. They’ve had these roads all these years and it’s time we get them back and we take care of them,” stated Kemp.


Tweed Shuman said he too believes the Tribe would be better custodians of the roads on the BIA inventory as it is the Tribal people who travel the roads every day.


TGB member Glenda Barber noted that Tribal Leadership gets the blame for the condition and neglect of these roads within the reservation when they aren’t responsible for them. She agreed it’s time the Tribe takes care of them.

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