Latest on Lac du Flambeau land dispute and road closures: State lawmakers call on Gov. Evers to step in as some non-Native landowners organize
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the title companies built the roads. They did not build the roads.
LAC DU FLAMBEAU - Two state lawmakers are calling for a peaceful resolution at the Lac du Flambeau reservation in northern Wisconsin, where tribal officials have blocked roads during a land dispute.
State Sen. Mary Felzkowski, R-Tomahawk, and state Rep. Rob Swearingen, R-Rhinelander — who both represent the area near the reservation in Vilas County — said they have received phone calls from constituents who feel they are being barricaded in their own homes and are struggling to access prescription medications.
“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,” the lawmakers said in a joint statement.
Tribal officials set up barricades on the roads Jan. 30 after negotiations with property title companies that handled the homes the roads provide access to.
Tribal officials said the roads were illegally built on tribal land on the reservation and the tribe has not been compensated for the right-of-way easements.
They said they are taking care of affected residents.
“All affected residents have access to EMS services, propane, mail delivery and waste disposal services,” tribal officials said in a statement. “The tribal police have been conducting health and welfare checks on all residents, twice daily. Staff have assisted at least two residents by offering to pick up and deliver medications at off-reservation pharmacies.”
They said they are also assisting with grocery delivery.
“Tribal program staff have also reached out with offers of food box delivery, and have also reached out to provide additional assistance, as needed,” the statement read. “We understand that this is a difficult time for those residents and have tried to show compassion for their predicament.”
Felzkowski and Swearingen are calling for Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers to step in.
“We cannot stress enough how vital it is for the governor to use all the tools at his disposal to find a peaceful resolution,” their statement read.
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Evers did travel to the reservation this past weekend and met with tribal officials to discuss the situation, a source with knowledge of the visit said.
It is understood that this is a dispute between private landowners, but Evers wanted to be sure the parties were working toward a resolution.
"I appreciate the Tribe’s commitment to ensuring affected residents have the information they need and can continue accessing critical services and assistance," Evers later said in a statement. “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. I remain hopeful that with everyone at the table, the parties will be able to reach meaningful resolution.”
Tribal officials said the property owners have been trespassing on private property owned by the tribe and that it is now up to the title companies, First American Title Company and Chicago Title Insurance Company, to rectify the situation.
Representatives for First American Title Company, which has an office in Green Bay, said they’re working to resolve the situation.
“We recognize and respect that the Lac du Flambeau Tribe claims they have ownership over these easements, and they feel they have a legal claim to protect their property,” Felzkowski and Swearingen said in their statement. “We would like to stress to Tribal President (John) Johnson that the manner in which all parties are going about this issue is unproductive and is endangering the lives of Wisconsin citizens — his neighbors. We are certain it is not his intent to punish the innocent homeowners caught in the middle of this fight.”
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David Kievet, who is one of the affected residents on Sugarbush Lane, said tribal officials have told him they will allow him to leave his property with his vehicle, but he wouldn’t be allowed back in.
He said he’s keeping his snowmobile at his neighbor’s house so he can use it to travel across a frozen lake when he wants to leave and come back.
“I have started to organize the landowners,” Kievet said. “From my records, there are 55 affected properties. … So far, I have enrolled about 25 of the property owners in a community site where we can exchange information.”
He said he has reached out to state, local and tribal officials.
Kievet said, “Nobody has bothered to pick the phone up and let me know what is going on or what we can do about it.”
Frank Vaisvilas is a Report for America corps member who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin based at the Green Bay Press-Gazette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 815-260-2262. Follow him on Twitter at @vaisvilas_frank.You can directly support his work with a tax-deductible donation online at GreenBayPressGazette.com/RFA or by check made out to The GroundTruth Project with subject line Report for America Green Bay Press Gazette Campaign. Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Drive, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press-Gazette: Lac du Flambeau road closures: Gov. Evers visits, homeowners stranded