Approximately 30 people attended a special meeting of the Lac du Flambeau town board on Monday, Jan. 30. There was one action item on the agenda and that was the impending closure of four roads by the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. (Photo by Brian Jopek/Lakeland Times)
Approximately 30 people attended a special meeting of the Lac du Flambeau town board on Monday, Jan. 30. There was one action item on the agenda and that was the impending closure of four roads by the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. (Photo by Brian Jopek/Lakeland Times)
" It’s not a tribal issue or non-tribal issue. It’s about the expired easements.
" Gloria Cobb Lac du Flambeau town supervisor
The Lac du Flambeau Tribe notified landowners that four roads in Lac du Flambeau would be closed off to access because no resolution was reached in the last ten years on the road easement issue — stranding several homeowners behind locked barricades. According to an attorney working for some of the homeowners  the Tribe is demanding $20 million to clear up the access dispute.
The barricades began going up on four roads in Lac du Flambeau late Tuesday morning. 
They were put in place by personnel from the road department of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians pursuant to a letter dated Jan. 19 and sent to landowners on Annie Sunn Lane, Center Sugarbush Lane, East Ross Allen Lane and Elsie Lake Lane.
According to information gathered from the tribe, its easement access being negotiated with First American Title Company and Chicago Title Insurance Company on East Ross Allen Lake Lane is 9,360 square feet or 0.22 acres; Elsie Lake Lane 65,550 square feet or 1.5 acres; Annie Sunn Lane 124,600 square feet or 2.86 acres and Center Sugarbush Lane 87,900 square feet or 2.02 acres.
The letter regarding what was described as “expired rights-of-way” on portions of those roads, was from John Johnson, Sr., tribal president. 
Copies of his letter were sent to Diane Baker and Jeremy Larson with the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Baker the superintendent for the BIA’s Great Lakes Agency. 
Also receiving copies of the letter were attorneys Nancy Appleby and Bridget Hubing, Hubing mentioned in Johnson’s letter as “legal counsel for some of the landowners” and Appleby as legal counsel to First American Title Insurance Company. 
“The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians (the ‘Tribe’) is sending this letter to you as a landowner on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation who has applied for a right-of-way over Annie Sunn Lane, Center Sugarbush Lane, East Ross Allen Lake Lane or Elsie Lake Lane,” Johnson wrote, adding the tribe has been working with the BIA, Hubing and Appleby “to address the issue of your nearly ten-year-old expired right-of-way and continued trespass over Indian lands on the Lac du Flambeau Indian Reservation. 
“Unfortunately, significant progress has not been made to bring this issue to a resolution that is mutually beneficial to all parties,” Johnson continued in his letter. “Due to this, the Tribe considers your right-of-way to have expired nearly ten years ago and your use of said right-of-way since expiration is and will be considered trespassing.”
He cited 169.410 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which addresses steps the BIA or tribes may take if, according to the Cornell Law School website, “a grantee remains in possession after a right-of-way expires or is terminated or cancelled.”
Johnson wrote that beginning on Jan. 31, 2023, the tribe “reserves the right to limit access to (the four roads) as the rightful owner of lands those roads traverse.”
“This right to limit access may include, but is not limited to, posting of signs and checkpoints, and/or physical barriers,” he wrote. “The Tribe will do its best to continue working with the BIA and the respective legal counsel for the individual applicants and the respective title companies to resolve this issue. In the meantime, the Tribe must take steps to protect its own interests in this current situation.”
The morning of Monday, Jan. 30, Lac du Flambeau town chairman Matt Gaulke called a special town board meeting for 1 p.m. that day. 

What started the issue
At the start of the hour-long meeting attended via conference call by Hubing and approximately 40 town residents, most of them with property and homes on the four roads in question, Gaulke said he received a phone call on Monday, Jan. 23 from a property owner on Elsie Lake Lane “stating she had received the letter which I’m sure all of you had regarding trespass from tribal president John Johnson.”
He said he contacted town attorney Greg Harrold and informed him of the situation and since then, Harrold had been in contact with the title companies involved.
“It was my understanding the title companies had been working with the tribe on a resolution with this,” Gaulke said. “Then on Thursday (Jan. 26), I believe it was, I placed a call to John Johnson, tribal president. I did have a chance to speak with him on Friday where he said they (tribal council) were going to be meeting that afternoon and he would get back to me.”
He said he didn’t hear from Johnson “but it was apparently later in the day.”
Gaulke said he’d also contacted Congressman Tom Tiffany’s office “and let him know the situation and what was going on.”
Harrold said in 1963, the town met with a developer regarding “at least three of these roads and maybe all four.”
“The developer came to the town and represented that he owned the road and deeded the road to the town,” he said. “The town opened the town roads. It turns out, the developers had a 50 year lease. So it went from 1963 to 2013 and it expired.”
Harrold said the town became aware of the lease situation in 2013.
“This had probably become an issue maybe four years ago but then it evolved into the title companies and the town was no longer involved,” he said. “The town has not been involved in this for about four years. Since about 2018.”
Harrold said the first time the town was made aware there was still an issue with the four roads was when Johnson’s Jan. 19 letter was sent to property owners.
“For whatever property owners that owned land on these four roads, if they had title insurance, their title insurance company has filed an application with the tribe, I believe five or six years ago, at least, trying to get a right-of-way purchased from the tribe. So, those were the people that got this letter on Jan. 19 as far as I know.”
Harrold said the letter was mailed and most of those it was sent to “probably didn’t get it until Saturday (Jan. 21) or last Monday (Jan. 23).”
“Some of us received it today,” Lac du Flambeau resident Mike Hornbostel said. “The chief of police was on Ross Allen Lake delivering, hand delivering letters personally to me. I didn’t receive one in the mail. The official notification came from the chief of police today.”
Harrold said she contacted Hubing who he said “went into detail” on what had been done with regard to negotiations with the tribe. 
“I think she has shared that letter with her clients, some of you may be in this audience,” he said. “Suffice it to say they (title companies) got surveys done of all four roads.”
Harrold used the results of one of those surveys, of East Ross Allen Lake Road, as an example of what was found.
“I looks like there’s ... 150 feet of tribal land that is crossed before you get to non-tribal, privately owned land,” he said. “In any event, she (Hubing) told me she was communicating with her clients ... we’ve got a situation where there are several people on each of these roads who did not have title insurance and who are not represented by a title company.” 
Harrold said regardless a property owner’s status on one of the four roads, whether represented by Hubing or a title company or not at all, they got served by Lac du Flambeau Tribal Police with a copy of Johnson’s Jan. 19 letter. 
“So apparently, the police officers also told them that they intend to put barricades across the roads tomorrow to block the roads,” he said. “At least one of the people was told that if they attempted to walk outside or cross over (the barricade), that they would be criminally prosecuted for criminal trespass.”
Hornbostel said he was who was told by tribal police he would be charged with criminal trespass. 
Harrold said he contacted the tribe’s attorney, Andrew Adams, on Saturday, Jan. 27, letting him know of the call Gaulke received from the Elsie Lake Road resident and was told by Adams he would pass along the message to the tribal council. 

Finger pointing
“I see this as, potentially, a chance to get something done here,” town supervisor Bob Hanson, a retired attorney, said. “We’ve had this roads issue around for 10 years now. I think what the town should really look at doing ... is to concede the roads the tribe is seeking because all we have is an expired lease and all that is is a handful of air anyway.”
Once the town does that, he said, the tribe and town “should go after” the title companies “and get them to do their job.”
“What we’ve got now is we have the tribe here and the town here and we’re banging heads and the title companies are standing back and laughing,” Hanson said. “We need to hold their feet to the fire and get them to do what they’re supposed to do.”
Gaulke said he could “reach out” to the tribe to see if there could be “some type of agreement” reached between the town and the tribe. 
“My main concern is to keep the roads open for the people who live on them,” he said. “Besides just the normal day to day traffic to get in and out but it’s for emergency purposes. If somebody needs an ambulance, is somebody’s house starts on fire. It’s very important that they stay open for that.”
Town supervisor Gloria Cobb, a member of the tribe, employed by the tribe and past member of the tribal council, said she agreed with Hanson with regard to the town conceding the roads to the tribe. 
“This really isn’t a town issue and this has been going on for 10 years,” she said. “This is the title companies and their attorneys digging their feet in. It’s not a tribal or non-tribal issue. It’s about the expired easements.”
Where it does become a town issue, Cobb said, is liability in the event of an emergency situation. 
“It is in our best interest to work with the tribe jointly to go after the title companies,” she said. 
Lac du Flambeau resident Mary Possin asked if the four roads are public roads, and Gaulke said they’re listed as town roads on the Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s gas tax map. 
Three of the leases were granted in early 1964, expiring in 2014 and one was granted in 1961 and expired in 2011. 
Gaulke said in going back through old meeting minutes, it was discovered when the roads became town roads. 
However, he said, the town was not made aware of the easements until it was notified by the BIA as they came due. 
“Neither were any of the property owners aware of these easements,” said Lac du Flambeau resident Mary Possin. 
“That very well could be,” Gaulke said. 
“Why do I need a right-of-way from anybody to travel on a public road?” Possin asked. “When I leave my property and I go out of my driveway and turn onto Elsie Lake Lane, I am not turning onto the piece of the road that is being contested here. I’m just like any other Tom, Dick or Harry driving down a public road and then I get to the part of the road that’s the issue here ... and the tribe is saying I’m trespassing. But, just because I’m a property owner there, what’s that got to do with it? How am I trespassing more than anyone in this room or more than any citizen of the United States of America?”
Anyone, Possin said, who’s not a tribal member and driving down “that town road ... why is this not the town’s problem?”
“That’s what I want to know,” she said. “You all need the easement.”
The easements were granted to the developer and they’ve expired,” Gaulke said. “It’s just like any easement or lease that you might have if you want to equate it to a lease. It had a time limit on it and it expired ... our lease technically would have expired.”
“Right, so why don’t you get in with us on this?” Possin asked. 
“Well, that’s why we’re having this meeting,” Gaulke said, adding when he was asked if tribal officials were notified of Monday’s special town board meeting that the meeting was called on short notice at 9:30 that morning but the tribe was notified. 
Cobb said there have been meetings in the past few years between the tribe and some of the property owners to get clarification. 
Lac du Flambeau resident Dave Meiss said he had a letter from the town that was written in 2014 and had Gaulke’s signature on it that said “as long as negotiations are going on, the tribe and the town had agreed “these roads would stay open without any encumbrance.”
“So, what’s changed?” he asked. 
“Well, apparently the negotiations between the tribe and the title companies have broken down,” Gaulke said. 
“I don’t think they’ve broken down,” Meiss said. “The tribe even said they continue to negotiate in good faith and I’ve been on the phone with my attorney and she said negotiations are still going on and she was surprised by this letter. So, I would say, in fact, negotiations have not broken down and this (the 2014 town letter) still applies.”
“Well, I guess reading the (Jan. 19) letter from the tribe, they might feel differently,” Gaulke said. 
“I would suggest they might have to specifically say that,” Meiss said. 

Potential impact
Don Pollard, an 88-year-old resident of Annie Sunn Lane, said he’s been aware of the negotiations of the past decade and wasn’t disputing any of that. 
His concern was the urgency to get the matter resolved. 
“I am right now packing because I’ve been advised I need to leave my home because I can’t get out of there because they’re going to block my road,” Pollard said. “I have to leave. I have to find housing somewhere by the end of today. I don’t have time to negotiate and talk around ‘When are we gonna do this’ or ‘When are we gonna do that?’ What are those (people) being forced out of their homes, when it’s gonna be 18 or 19 below zero tonight and tomorrow even colder ... where are they gonna go?”
He said he was “taking serious the fact” residents were going to be “barricaded from our homes.”
“I think what we’re seeing here is a lot of frustration from the tribe as well,” Hanson said. “They’ve been looking at this situation for 10 years, the same as we have and it hasn’t really moved ahead during that time. That’s where I think we need to make some significant progress on the roads issue and make these title companies responsible for the debt they owe the people who have been inconvenienced and the debt they may owe to the tribe as well. If there’s any financial obligation incurred in order to keep these roads open, I think the title companies should be responsible for that ... they guaranteed people they would have access to their homes and now they don’t.”

$20 million offer
Hubing, the attorney for some of the property owners and attending the meeting via conference call, said the title companies have been working with the tribe “for several years” on the rights-of-way issue for the four roads. 
“We filed (easement) applications many years ago and we were following the process to get new rights-of-way,” she said. “First there were surveys that needed to be completed and we hired surveyors in a timely manner.”
Hubing said the required surveying was completed and submitted to the BIA “who took a very long time to approve the surveys and give us scopes of work through the appraisals.”
“That took almost two years,” she said. “We certainly have a laundry list of emails and communications with the BIA, trying to get that process to move forward. We did our very best. Finally, the BIA gave us the scope of work and we hired the appraisers to do their job.”
Hubing said the appraisals were completed in a “timely manner” and submitted to the tribe.
“After some time, we asked permission from the tribe to see those appraisals,” she said. “It took the tribe two and a half months to even respond to our request to see the appraisals.”
During that time, Hubing said, negotiations for the new terms and conditions of the new rights-of-way began, negotiations that included the tribe’s attorney, Andrew Adams “insistently asking him for telephone conferences, asking to talk about specific terms so we would have everything in place when we got the appraisals and negotiate a price.”
“So, we probably have a paper trails three miles long ... to move this thing along. We were consistently stonewalled by the tribe and the BIA.”
Still, Hubing said, overall she felt negotiations were “going very well.”
Over the past two or three months, she said, once the appraisals were in, a “demand” of $10 million was received from the tribe to keep the four roads open. 
“As you know, I represent some landowners who are insured and some landowners who are not insured and $10 million is a lot of money,” Hubing said. “If you divide that up amongst the people on those roads, it’s way over the top of what you would expect in this type of situation or for an easement and we are sure the tribe based that on the property value.”
In other words, she said, all the property owners would have to revise their property every 50 years “in order to use their property.”
“That’s not a way of evaluation easements anywhere that I’m aware of,” Hubing said. “We were hopeful that negotiations would continue and we thought that they were.”
Then, she said, two days after the tribe’s negotiating team issued notification it wouldn’t let the other negotiating team see the appraisals, the Jan. 19 letter from Johnson was sent. 
“So, the title companies didn’t really have an opportunity to respond to the demand after we heard that we were not going to get the appraisals,” Hubing said. “I think it’s grossly unfair to say the title companies have done nothing.” 
She said she was hoping the lines of communication stay open and that “the negotiations continue but we are asking the town to do something in the interim.”
Hubing, before she stopped, made the town board and others at the meeting aware that in the days after the $10 million demand from the tribe was received and the title companies’ attorneys were “consistently asking” to see the appraisals so they could be assessed toward the $10 million, Adams, the tribe’s attorney, sent an email on behalf of the tribe stating the “demand was raised to $20 million.”
“$20 million,” Hubing said. “Twice the home values on all those roads.”
Over the course of the rest of the meeting, there was discussion about jurisdiction issues pertaining to law enforcement and while the tribal police chief wasn’t in attendance, Vilas County Sheriff Joe Fath was and reassured those present there was “joint jurisdiction” between his office and tribal police. 
Fath told The Lakeland Times Tuesday once the barricades were up people would have to coordinate with tribal police if they needed to get out to get items such as groceries or if a propane delivery was needed. 

Midweek status
By Wednesday, even though the roads were still barricaded, residents were still able to, if possible, leave their homes.
Minocqua resident Mary Poer told the Times she has friends in their upper 60s and 70s on East Allen Lake Road. 
“They’re locked in there because of the tribal stuff,” she said. “The tribal police said if I walked across the boundary, I could get arrested but I need to get them some groceries and I need to get them to medical appointments but we’re being told at the time, if they leave for a medical appointment, they cannot return home.”
In other cases, if a resident is able, they can walk to their home on one of the roads in question from their vehicle. 
“After many phone calls, apparently within the executive council of the tribe, they will now be allowing people out but obviously, not back in,” a resident told the Times. “Propane you can get. I have to walk in about three quarters of a mile.”
The Lac du Flambeau resident said from what he was told by tribal police chief T.J. Bill, technically, “walking on the road is trespassing.”
“But he goes ‘I am not writing any citations for trespassing if people are walking,’” the resident said. “I said ‘That’s good’ and he said ‘You have to draw a line somewhere.’”
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at [email protected]