Rain runoff is clouding the region’s streams this week, but their murkiness isn’t even close to matching the jurisdictional dispute on the waters of Lake Roosevelt.
Don and Christine Fisher of Electric City tried to clear up the question of what fishing license is needed on the Columbia River reservoir bordering the Colville Indian Reservation.
But last week, after a year a half, the tribe’s enforcement and judicial systems suspended their spell of intimidation and chickened out.
In 2012, Colville Confederated Tribes fish and wildlife officers began citing Lake Roosevelt anglers who did not have tribal fishing licenses as they cast their lines on Geezer Beach next to Grand Coulee Dam.
The anglers were outraged, since they were fishing from land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and below the elevation of 1,310 feet, which the courts have established as the boundary of federal land on Lake Roosevelt.
When the ticketed anglers asked the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for guidance, they were told that only a state fishing license is needed to fish from that area. But officials admitted the disagreement between the tribe and the state regarding the jurisdiction at Geezer Beach had never been contested.
The tribe claims anglers have to drive on reservation land in order to reach the beach.
The Fishers decided to make the sacrifice for other anglers and contest this questionable rationale.
On April 19, 2012, they went to Geezer Beach and started fishing. Tribal officer Cory Christman soon showed up. He told them the tribe had jurisdiction over anglers out to the middle of the lake and wrote them a total of $400 in tickets before confiscating their fishing rods and a fish they had caught.
A court date was set.
But it’s more difficult that you might think to risk personal expense to solve an issue that threatens public access on waters bordering the Indian reservations along Lake Roosevelt.
When similar tension was brewing between anglers and tribal officers in 1994, Joe Cassidy of Davenport made the emotional and financial sacrifice of getting arrested by tribal police while fishing from a boat on the reservation side of the reservoir. Then he drummed up financial assistance and took the U.S. government to court.
He hoped the case would decide whether anglers need a state or tribal license in those waters.
Indeed, the court ruled in favor of Cassidy, noting the Colville and Spokane tribes do not have authority under existing U.S. laws to regulate fishing by non-Indians in any Lake Roosevelt waters.
The Cassidy Decision has given the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and sportsmen clear legal guidance for jurisdiction and access. But the tribes have continued to press legal angles that frustrate anglers and state officials alike.
The Geezer Beach incidents rise from an unchallenged rule in the Colville Tribe’s fishing regulations for non-tribal members. It states:
“When fishing Lake Roosevelt, non-member fishermen that traverse the Colville Indian Reservation to obtain fishing access on the west shore of Lake Roosevelt are required to possess a Colville Indian Reservation Fishing Permit.”
The state goes along with that rule in most cases, but Geezer Beach is on U.S. Bureau of Reclamation land.
When he cited the Fishers, tribal officer Christman referred to an even murkier contention – that the tribe still has jurisdiction to the middle of the original Columbia River channel in the reservoir along the reservation.
That’s the point the Cassidy case sought to debunk. But, strangely, the National Park Service still observes the middle-of-the-lake boundary. This came to light in October during the federal government shutdown, when Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area was closed, including its public boat launches and waters.
The Spokane Tribe’s Two Rivers Resort allowed anglers to use the tribal launch, but National Park Service officials said the anglers had to stay on the reservation half of the reservoir or risk getting a ticket from park rangers.
This rule is based on a five-party agreement signed in 1990 by the Park Service, U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Colville and Spokane tribes and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“The Park Service apparently is trying to get along with the tribe and letting them dictate the rules, but by law our agency has to abide by the Cassidy decision,” he said.
To further muddy the situation, the Colville Tribe has flat out drawn the line and said it reserves the right to cite anglers without tribal licenses in the Sanpoil Arm of Lake Roosevelt even if it’s below the 1,310-foot line.
“Until the parties are able to provide more clarity, the CCT recommends that anglers who are fishing on the Sanpoil Arm obtain a tribal fishing permit,” said John Sirois, chairman of the tribe’s Business Council.
On Jan. 2, the Fishers made the 40-mile round trip to the tribal court in Nespelem a fifth time to try to find that clarity. Tribal prosecutor Curtis Slatina had led them on for a year and a half and then simply handed them papers saying the case had been dismissed.
“Then we had to drive over to Wilbur and up across the Keller Ferry to another place to get the fishing rods they’d confiscated,” said Don Fisher, 65.
“I wanted to talk to the judge to try to get them at least to tell the tribal officers to quit harassing people on the lake. But the judge and the prosecutor wouldn’t talk to us.”