A dispute about jurisdiction over an access road to a recreational vehicle park in Big Arm led the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to sue Lake County in federal court in May, citing claims the road remained in trust for the tribes with the United States government.
The litigation harkens back to the Hellgate Treaty of 1855 and other laws in its wake regarding tribal jurisdiction.
The county, which had approved the Wild Horse RV resort, responded that the U.S. title to roads and alleys in the Big Arm town site had been extinguished when the town site was platted and that these byways are under county jurisdiction. In turn, the tribes argued the county had not followed the steps outlined in a 1915 law detailing the process by which a county could acquire rights to lay out roads over Indian reservations in Montana.
On May 13, tribal employees gated the road to Wild Horse RV and although the gate was later unlocked and “no trespassing” signs were removed, the contractor left because of the conflict and the road was never finished. CSKT operates Big Arm Resort, which would have been a competitor. Lori Lundeen was the developer of Wild Horse RV Resort.
On Thursday, lawyers for the CSKT and Lake County will present arguments in the case in federal court in Missoula.
Lake County commissioners are concerned the case could have sweeping implications that could go well beyond the roads and alleys in Big Arm.
At issue is language in the lawsuit about “using presumed rights of way for utility installation” and about other issues that lead commissioners to worry about how a judge might rule.
“There’s a lot of ramifications,” said Gale Decker, chairman of the Lake County board of commissioners.
“If CSKT is successful in this litigation, it will eliminate county access or use of county roads across all tribal trust lands, thereby eliminating public access to roads owned and/or maintained by Lake County,” commissioners said in a news release. The decision could apply to other counties, such as Sanders County, with roads within the reservation, the release further stated.
The commissioners pointed out in their press release that access to public roads in other incorporated town sites, including Charlo, Pablo, Big Arm, Dayton, D’Aste, Elmo, Arlee and Ravalli, “potentially could be impacted as the streets and alleys [of] those town sites are located on county rights of way.”
The commissioners also are worried about the potential impacts to installation of utilities such as fiber optic, telephone and power.
Robert McDonald, a spokesman for CSKT, was asked about the commissioners’ concerns regarding the lawsuit’s larger implications.
“This is a disagreement we’re trying to settle over ownership of the underlying land in question and ultimately, who has regulatory authority,” McDonald replied.
Commissioners said Monday they’re not contesting the ownership of the lands beneath the roads but suggest precedent provides for all citizens to use county roads.
The CSKT lawsuit observes, “Prior to July 16, 1855, the CSKT held aboriginal title to much of present day Montana, including what is now the Flathead Indian Reservation. The 1855 Treaty of Hellgate caused no break in the tribal title to reservation lands.”
The lawsuit contends the Lake County Planning Board recommended approval in April 2018 of the Wildhorse RV Resort despite concerns raised by a CSKT representative on the planning board about access to the development.
County commissioners issued a conditional approval of the resort subdivision on May 16, 2018.
CSKT said it sued in May of this year because of “Lori Lundeen’s commencement of road construction, despite known issues regarding legal access over land held in trust title for the CSKT.”
The tribes’ lawsuit argued that “the roads, alleys and public parks designated by the 1913 plat for the proposed (Big Arm) town site were not alienated from the Flathead Indian Reservation at any time and continue to be held in trust for the benefit of the CSKT.”
Meanwhile, Decker said there’s a chance the litigation just might lead to more clarity about tribal, county and private property jurisdictional issues he said have been kicked like a can down the road for years.
“I don’t necessarily see it as a negative for the county,” he said.
Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at email@example.com or 758-4407.