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Right of way dispute between Lac du Flambeau tribe, title companies ends with road closures

Tribe blocked access to 4 roads leading to homes owned by non-tribal residents

Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa road blockages.
A dispute between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, title companies and a local town resulted in the tribe blocking access to four roads crossing reservation land. Photo courtesy of David Kievet

A dispute between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and two title companies has led to the closure of four roads crossing reservation land. That’s left some non-tribal residents unable to drive to and from their homes and has gotten the attention of local legislators who say lives are being endangered.

Dave Kievet has lived in his home off Center Sugarbush Lane for eight years. He said he was informed about an easement across tribal property to access his home when he signed off on the purchase.

“We ended up with three large title insurance policies that provide us a guarantee that we’ll be able to get from our property to Pokegama Lake Trail,” Kievet said.

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That easement expired 10 years ago. On Jan. 30, the Lac du Flambeau tribe closed Center Sugarbush Lane with concrete blocks connected by a steel cable. Three other roads crossing tribal land were also closed, said Kievet.

The roads were blocked after negotiations over right-of-way payments between the tribe, First American Title Company and Chicago Title Insurance Company broke down.

A statement from the Lac Du Flambeau Band issued Feb. 3 said the tribe informed the title companies last September that it intended to negotiate new right-of-way agreements, subsequent payments and past and future access. It further states the tribe set a deadline of Oct. 27 and claims tribal officials didn’t get a response until December, which it labeled “merely an attempt to delay the negotiation process.”

During the time roads are blocked, the tribe has assured emergency service personnel and propane deliveries will continue to impacted households. It also said tribal members are working on ways to get food and medications to residents.

Kievet is frustrated with “all parties out there,” including the Lac du Flambeau town board.

“I’m sure that there’s a solution here,” Kievet said. “But I can almost guarantee you that as long as everybody remains squared-off in their own corner, it’s going to go on in perpetuity. Yeah, I don’t see how this ends in a good way.”

Updates posted on the Town of Lac du Flambeau’s website indicate Town Board Chair Matt Gaulke sent a letter to Lac du Flambeau Tribal President John Johnson on Feb. 3 requesting that the roads be reopened for 60 days during talks.

Gaulke has not responded to an interview request left with the town’s clerk by Wisconsin Public Radio.

A spokesperson for the Lac du Flambeau tribal government said interviews with Johnson or others aren’t being arranged at this time.

The tribe’s website included a copy of its response to the town’s 60-day moratorium request.

“First and foremost, we have no intention of removing the barriers that we installed on our lands until the Town, title companies, and right-of-way applicants make a good faith offer to the Tribe for compensation for over ten years of trespass and valid rights-of-way over the Tribal lands these roads traverse,” Johnson wrote.

On Tuesday, state Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Irma, and state Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander, issued a joint statement calling on Gov. Tony Evers to do something, warning the ongoing dispute is “endangering the lives” of residents.

“We cannot stress enough how vital it is for the Governor to use all the tools at his disposal to find a peaceful resolution,” the statement said. “With physical barriers going up on the roads used by residents, and rhetoric turning negative very quickly, it’s imperative that action be taken immediately to ensure the safety of citizens who are not to blame for the current situation.”

Evers met with tribal officials on Saturday. In a statement, he thanked Johnson and the tribal council for a productive meeting.

“As this is an ongoing private dispute, my priority as governor is encouraging everyone in the area to engage amicably and peacefully with each other while working to bring all parties to the table to resolve this issue quickly,” Evers said. “I remain hopeful that with everyone at the table, the parties will be able to reach meaningful resolution.”

The Lac du Flambeau town board has scheduled a special meeting for 1 p.m Wednesday to discuss negotiations with the tribe in closed session.