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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Guarding a lake’s legacy

Robert Matt, administrative director of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, was point person in the negotiations with Avista during the dam relicensing project. 
 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Robert Matt, administrative director of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, was point person in the negotiations with Avista during the dam relicensing project. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokesman-Review

Robert Matt, administrative director for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, returned to the reservation for work after receiving a college degree in wildlife and fisheries management. He’s 32 now, and Matt has worked on water quality issues for the tribe for a decade. He was the tribe’s point person in discussions with Avista Utilities during its recent dam relicensing process, an ongoing concern for the tribe.

He spoke with editorial board member Rebecca Nappi about the tribe’s past, present and future relationship with Lake Coeur d’Alene and other source waters for the Spokane River.

Rebecca Nappi: Some of our readers might not know that the health of Lake Coeur d’Alene translates to the well-being of the entire Spokane River. Can you explain the connection?

Robert Matt: The ability of the downstream portions of the Spokane River to be what they are — functioning, natural systems that support life — is dependent on the quality of the water coming from the headwaters — the Coeur d’Alene River and St. Joe River. The lake is the holding point for those waters.

Q: Talk a bit about the tribe’s relationship to the lake.

A: Our people have been living on the shores of the lake and the river and in the mountains surrounding them for thousands and thousands of years. We had everything we needed here. Some of the elders referred to the lake and the river as our refrigerator.

Q: Explain how much of Lake Coeur d’Alene the tribe holds title to.

A: The lake has always been a part of us and the basis for who we are. We weren’t nomadic. Our people lived in the core area right around the lake and its key tributaries. When our reservation was formed, our ancestors fought very hard for the lake to be included within the boundaries of the reservation.

They actually traveled (in the late 1800s) by horse wagon, by foot, by train, from little-known Plummer, Idaho, all the way to Washington, D.C., to negotiate with the president because the original reservation wasn’t inclusive of the lake and the river.

Our agreement with the United States government established the lake for the exclusive use of our people, to sustain our membership. It was supposed to be forever. Our homelands were 4 ½ million acres. Now, we’re left with a beautiful, but small 345,000 acres, and the lake is a piece of that. We had to fight through the federal court systems to have our ownership reaffirmed (in 2001), and we were very excited about that victory. That left us with the southern third of the lake as under tribal ownership.

Q: Describe the extent of your involvement in the Avista dam relicensing process.

A: My background within the tribe is in biology and science. So I spent several years as a staff biologist and as a program manager representing particular disciplines in the relicensing process. I see myself being involved a good 20 or 30 more years as the license is being implemented.

Q: What is the tribe’s main objection to the Avista relicensing application concerning Post Falls Dam?

A: The whole area of the dam was a very special place to us. It was one of the village sites for one of our clans. Post Falls Dam inundates about 48,000 surface acres, all of which we believe we own.

Our ownership of that acreage was ignored for the whole life of the project, so we have a lot of unresolved issues. Not only with Avista, but also with the communities who have grown accustomed to a particular lake elevation that may not be consistent with wetland productivity or the fishery the tribe may like to see restored.

If we don’t fight hard for traditional use, we are cheating our membership in the future or being disrespectful to our ancestors.

Q: Would the tribe like to see the Post Falls Dam removed entirely?

A: The tribe is not an advocate of removing Post Falls Dam. We’d like to see the project continue to operate, and we envision that happening. We know the region needs power. We need power. We have refrigerators and stoves, and we like to have the lights turn on when we flip the switch. But we also believe that there is a way to balance the needs of modern-day people with the needs of the resource.

Q: In one of the documents submitted to Avista, the tribe stated that the Post Falls Dam holds the lake level approximately 8 feet higher through the summer growing season than would occur if no dam existed. What are some of the ramifications?

A: The way Mother Nature designed Coeur d’Alene Lake was to absorb the flashy snowmelts. All the water comes at once. We need to store some of it and let it out slowly. That was the design that the Creator had in mind for the lake. The dam alters that. When water is supposed to be receding, and wetlands and plant communities are supposed to be developing and growing, the pool is being raised and stopping that.

And it happens in the areas where our traditional uses were the most prolific, whether it was gathering water potatoes or having access to a fishing site. Raising the pool and holding it high has changed those in many ways.

We’d like to see those restored. In lieu of the tribe having those resources in our traditional spots, we’re saying we need those elsewhere. And that’s where the mitigation option comes in. Avista will have to make the choice of how that use is provided and sustained.

Q: What would mitigation look like?

A: Our highest priority is recovery of the fishery. The native cutthroat trout fishery is the tribe’s greatest concern. We have what is proclaimed as a world-class fly fishery in the upper St. Joe River. And parts of the Coeur d’Alene River are starting to come back now as water quality conditions improve. But within the lake itself, which was the tribe’s traditional fishery, there is not a native fishery there.

Our people haven’t fished for cutthroat trout on the reservation for 15 years now. And we don’t believe it has to be that way. So our priority is to see effort addressing that problem. We’re looking for the traditional fishery that would be your 20-to-24 inch fish that were the staple of our diet and existed by the tens of thousands. Those are the fisheries our people want. Those are the ones we’re entitled to.

Q: Why is the cutthroat so important to the tribe?

A: The cutthroat trout was the fish in the lake that sustained our people. As I said, we were a pretty sedentary tribe, and we lived on this lake all year round. Everything about us was focused on that particular fishery and waterfowl and other wild inhabitants of the lake. The underlying, fundamental perspective of us as Indian people is that the Creator put those things there for a reason and they should be there. And when we start messing with that, we take that circle of life and break the chain.

Q: Describe your personal relationship to the lake and the rivers.

A: I’d have to go back to my grandmother. She’s of the St. Joe River clan. Her family raised her on the banks of the St. Joe in a village site down there in an area that’s now underwater, flooded by the (Avista dam) project.

I grew up on the reservation in a very poor home. We didn’t have a lot of money. As most people on the reservation did, we subsisted off what we could get from the land, whether it was fishing or harvesting an elk, or maybe picking some berries and having huckleberry pie. We didn’t have the options of running to the supermarket and getting those things.

My life circumstances have changed now. I access those resources more now as a personal love, a personal interest. But I want my kids and my grandchildren to experience what my grandmother had when she was a child growing up on the banks of the river.

Q: What do you see as the biggest threat to the Spokane River?

A: The threats to the Spokane and the Coeur d’Alene system are similar. We are starting to love them to death. It’s such a beautiful place. We’ve got such competing interests. We love them because of their value to industry. Or we love them for their recreation value.

We as people are shortsighted. We live in the now. Is it OK to lower water quality standards now to satisfy our needs when it means future people won’t be able to swim or drink that water? The biggest challenge is to choose what’s best for the health of the lake and the river, as opposed to what’s best for our pocketbooks.

Are our lakes and streams healthy? They are telling us they are not. It doesn’t matter what the scientists say or what a politician may say. It matters what you see when you pick up a rock and look underneath it in a stream. It matters when you don’t see water flowing through a tributary that should have it.

There is a reason you don’t see fish in places anymore. There’s a reason salmon aren’t trying to crest the falls in downtown Spokane anymore. I encourage people to get out there and see for themselves. Look at the erosion and look at the change in the fishery. Look at the beauty that’s out there and form your own opinions. Make your own conclusions about what’s right.

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