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Bureau braces for fight

By DAVE WILKINS Idaho Staff Writer   dwilkins@capitalpress.com

The Idaho Farm Bureau Federation won’t let the proposed Nez Perce water agreement go into effect without a fight.

The organization issued a report last week detailing its opposition and will lobby against the agreement during the state legislative session this winter.

The Farm Bureau is one of a few groups to publicly oppose the agreement supported by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and a coalition of agriculture and trade groups in the state.

Proponents of the deal say that it will resolve all outstanding claims against Idaho water by the Nez Perce tribe and protect the state’s sovereignty over its water.

But the Farm Bureau argues that the deal will do more harm than good.

The agreement would undermine private property rights, Idaho’s agriculture-based economy and the democratic process, the bureau said in the report, titled “The Nez Perce Agreement: A Legacy of Unintended Consequences.”

Farmers, ranchers and small timber operators could see immediate negative impacts from the agreement, the bureau said.

The pact would reclassify streams and create certain zones that would be off limits to timber harvest.

“Some landowners with property along streams stand to lose a substantial portion (from one-third to one-half for some property owners) of their harvestable timber,” the bureau report said.

The transfer of some BLM lands to the Nez Perce under the agreement will jeopardize the future of existing grazing leases and create an access issue, the bureau maintains.

An immediate impact would be the increase in grazing fees on transferred lands from $1.43 per animal unit month under the BLM to $18 per AUM as currently charged by the tribe, according to the report.

The result would be that ranchers “will face the loss of BLM allotments, for which they will receive no compensation, and a loss in value to their base property,” the bureau said.

The organization also criticized the proposed agreement because it was negotiated behind closed doors.

“Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the Nez Perce Agreement is its lack of openess and transparency,” the bureau said. “Some affected by its outcome were never consulted nor gave their consent. Once final, it cannot realistically be reversed, no matter what ‘off-ramps’ are provided.”

The report also stated that the agreement “has the potential to divide North Idaho against South; forester against irrigator; surface water user against ground pumper; and neighbor against neighbor.”

The bureau’s preferred option is for the state and other parties to defend a 1999 decision by the Snake River Basin Adjudication court that Nez Perce claims for off-reservation instream flows aren’t valid.

The bureau’s second option would be for all parties to go back to the negotiating table.

The proposed agreement calls for the establishment of a $50 million fund for the Nez Perce tribe to restore and improve fish habitat, develop water resources and other agricultural projects.

The tribe would also receive $23 million for the design and construction of a water supply and sewer system on the reservation.

The U.S. Congress has already approved the deal, but the Idaho Legislature and the tribe must both approve it before it can go into effect.

Dave Wilkins is based in Twin Falls, Idaho. His e-mail address is dwilkins@capitalpress.com.

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