The Lac du Flambeau tribe has closed what used to be public boat launches on numerous lakes across their reservation as part of a standoff with the Town of Lac du Flambeau, private landowners, and two specific land title companies with whom they are disputing easements on tribal land.

As part of the standoff, both tribal and nontribal members who reside within the boundaries of the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation in western Vilas County continue to be prohibited from traveling freely to and from their homes after roadblocks were installed weeks ago.

At a special Town of Lac du Flambeau board meeting held in early February, frustrated residents and members of the town government met to discuss legal options, and also a way they could solve the more dire safety issue of emergency vehicles, plows and county sheriff’s deputies being shut out as well by locked gates on four specific town roads.

At that meeting it was determined that town officials would make an attempt to sit down with tribal leaders to discuss removing the barricades while the negotiation process played out. However, following attempts, tribal government said absolutely not and then doubled down on the situation by not allowing any nontribal members on their reservation lakes through what had been public boat launches.

Shutting down access for landowners via boat landings was never discussed, nor has there been clarification or comment from the tribe themselves as to why they are shutting the public and property owners out from using what were thought to be public launches.

Pokegama Lake, Flambeau Lake, Ike Walton Lake, Stearns Lake, Little Trout Lake and White Sand Lake are a few of the main bodies of water that have what were public launches on them. The tribe though now asserts those launches are not public, and have closed them to nontribal members, including those individuals who own private property on those lakes.

According to officials approximately 65 homes remain shut off from access behind barricades on four specific Town of Lac du Flambeau roads, which the town has maintained and plowed over the course of their existence.

Some private off-shoots also exist off these blocked roads and officials say approximately a dozen are inhabited or currently plowed.

Following public outcry regarding safety issues, there was a response from the tribe stating they would allow residents to leave without fear of trespass. However, they would not be allowed back in. February’s town board meeting provided a bit more clarity as it seemed the tribe would also allow access for the town to maintain the road in the event of snow, and would also be willing to meet residents at the gates if they needed to leave their homes for other reasons.

The tribe, however, has not stated in writing or in a public release that they would not prosecute those people found trespassing on the closed roads. They have stated that individuals caught proceeding onto tribal waters through closed boat landings would be prosecuted through tribal court for trespassing.

The situation as a whole has left many with a helpless feeling unlike anything they’ve ever felt.

“We are literally being held hostage in our own homes,” said Marsha Panfil, whose home resides near the Lac du Flambeau Reservation, behind a now closed road off East Ross Allen Lake Road. “This is 2023 and this is something that should not be happening in the United States.”

According to the tribe, a total of 9,360 sq. ft. or 0.22 acres of Ross Allen Lake Road is on tribal land, and because there is no easement or agreement for travel within the town, access is now shut off. The same goes for three other roads mentioned, which in total encompass about five acres of tribal land, that public roads run across.

The Vilas County Sheriff’s Department said they had no warning the blockade was coming, and they immediately received numerous calls regarding the situation. But because the issues reside on tribal property, the department does not have jurisdiction over the dispute.

A ranking member with the department did, however, express frustration with the tribe that no one at the county level was made aware that the situation was going to happen, and tribal government did not consult with Vilas County emergency management in regard to protocols that would be put in place in the event of a fire, a need for law enforcement, or a medical emergency that outside agencies would need to respond to.

It was also confirmed that the only two key holders to the locked roads are the tribe themselves, as well as tribal police. If an emergency arose that called for medical, fire, or police from a different jurisdiction, a key holder would need to meet emergency personnel at the gate to have it unlocked before being able to pass through.

“Our neighbor, who has an autistic daughter with special needs, had to leave their home and go to Iowa to stay with family because they would have had no way to get in or out of their home,” said Panfil. “This is just a firestorm brewing.”

Panfil, who purchased her home in 2019, said she was not ever made aware, to her knowledge, of the ongoing dispute. The tribe, however, says town officials have known of this and done nothing to secure easements they say expired over 10 years ago.

“The Town of Lac du Flambeau and the title companies, however, have repeatedly tried to circumvent the negotiations with the tribe over 10 years,” the tribe said. “By acting disingenuously and delaying the process of securing 25-year easements, we arrived at this point.

“For 10 years — a decade — the tribe has been trying to get the town and title companies to agree to 25-year easements, a fairly common practice granting permission to use another person’s land. Over those years, costs and expenses have continued to be incurred by the tribe in an effort to resolve this matter.”

According to the tribe, the fault for the dispute doesn’t reside with them as they say they have attempted to negotiate easements for the four roads at a price of $10 million. While in negotiations across the last few years, they also assert the title company instituted faulty land use agreements with property owners while not having the right to do so, giving those owners a false reassurance that situations such as this would never come to be.

“The tribe owns the property and for 10 years the title companies have held the individual property owners hostage by not negotiating in good faith to renew the rights of way that are now expired for 10 years,” said the tribe. “The title companies failed to study the chain of title on the access road; thus, they issued faulty policy commitments and/or they relied upon faulty Town of Lac du Flambeau roads information.”

An attorney for the title companies was at the February meeting in Lac du Flambeau and stated that an offer was submitted to the tribe for just shy of $1 million. However, the tribe denied it, and did not offer a counter or offer to meet and discuss what part of the $1 million offer would need to be amended.

Since then the tribe has increased the amount they want for the four easements to $20 million.

“The tribe arrived at $20 million by accounting for all the fees and expenses we’ve incurred trying to secure an agreement to provide access for property owners using tribal lands, as well as the cost of illegally using tribal lands over 10 years since the easements expired,” the tribe said.

According to the title company, the process hit a figurative road block when the tribe was unwilling to share appraisal amounts for the properties, appraisals that were done and paid for by the title company themselves.

The title companies repeatedly asked for this information and were only told they couldn’t see the information two days before owners received notice from the tribe.

“The tribe is knowingly endangering the taxpaying residents. What is neighborly about this? The residents and business owners that live on these lakes and provide support to this community are all being negatively impacted. We hope there is a resolution, but based on the nonresponse from the tribe, we do not see it in the near future,” a statement from a landowner said.

Town of Lac du Flambeau attorney Greg Harrold noted there are solutions through legal proceedings, but those would take months, if not years, to resolve.

Town board member Robert Hanson said he believes if they are going to find agreement between the title company, town and tribe, it needs to be done outside of the courts.

“We have to pursue that agreement with the tribe by talking,” said Hanson. “We have to get together and have open communication.”

The tribe however seemingly wants nothing to do with that, as requests to sit down and discuss the issue with town officials have not been answered, or even acknowledged. Neither have requests by the media for clarification and information regarding the case.

U.S. Congressman Tom Tiffany commented on the matter, stating what the tribe is doing is creating a public safety crisis, and that the way they are going about trying to get what they want is wrong.

“By choosing to barricade taxpayer-funded roads, the tribe is creating a public safety concern for people who might need an ambulance to arrive as quickly as possible, firefighters who might need to put out a fire, propane trucks who may need to fill up tanks, and restaurant owners whose livelihoods are at stake due to the road closures,” he said. “This is no way to treat your neighbors and I have spoken directly with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to resolve this issue as quickly as possible. Neighbors work together to find solutions; they do not hold each other hostage.”