Tribes seek land, money in water rights settlement
|June 11, 2007
|GREAT FALLS, Mont. (AP) - The
Fort Belknap tribes plan to ask Congress for $240 million and
nearly 55,000 acres of land as part of a water rights
settlement bill being drafted by the Gros Ventre and
Assiniboine tribes and the state.
The federal funding would help pay for an ethanol plant and a
new irrigation system that would reach 30,000 additional
But some people aren't happy that the tribes are seeking state
and federal public land in the settlement.
The lands include a popular recreation area called the
Grinnell Notch, roughly 15,000 acres that were carved out of
the southern edge of the Fort Belknap Reservation when gold
was discovered in the Little Rockies in the 1890s. It is near
the site of the now-defunct Pegasus Gold Corp. mines near
Zortman and Landusky, and is an area the tribes consider
''Once it goes to the reservation, it's not public land
anymore,'' said James Ployhar, a Great Falls resident who's
lobbying state and federal elected officials to block the
Ployhar prospects for gold as a hobby and his brother's Fort
Belknap-area property would be surrounded by reservation land
if the land deal is approved.
Tribal officials say they were advised to come up with
non-cash compensation as a means to complete the deal. And,
they note, the tribes once owned a portion of the 54,500 acres
''In the past, there have been many reasons for division
throughout the state of Montana between the Indian people and
the non-Indian,'' said Julia Doney, president of the Fort
Belknap Indian Community Council. ''The bottom line is water
can either divide us or it can bring us together.''
Richard Aldrich, a water consultant to the tribe, acknowledged
it could be politically difficult to get the full $240 million
passed and that's why the tribes are willing to consider the
''The IRS never tells you you didn't take enough deductions,''
Aldrich said. ''They only tell you when you take too big of a
The state of Montana and the Fort Belknap tribes reached an
agreement in 2001, setting the tribe's water rights to the
Milk River at 645 cubic feet per second.
The tribes can then ask Congress for compensation in exchange
for giving up all other water-related damage claims, said Jay
Weiner, an attorney with the Montana Reserved Water Rights
Compact Commission. The commission negotiates water rights on
behalf of the state.
''Congress usually wants the money spent on water-related
projects - irrigation, drinking water - and sometimes for
broader economic development things,'' Weiner said.
The tribe wants to use part of its settlement money to build
an ethanol plant and part to improve and enlarge an aging
irrigation system that serves the reservation's cattle ranches
and dryland farms.
In addition, plans call for construction of a 60,000-acre-foot
reservoir with an accompanying canal and a small, domestic
water system. The reservoir would allow the tribe to store its
water allocations and market water off the reservation, tribal
Weiner said officials are close to having a bill draft with a
settlement amount the congressional delegation believes it can
''We're hoping it will be introduced as soon as possible,''