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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 acres.

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 sacred.

''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 plan.

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 they're seeking.

''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 land transfers.

''The IRS never tells you you didn't take enough deductions,'' Aldrich said. ''They only tell you when you take too big of a bite.''

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 officials said.

Weiner said officials are close to having a bill draft with a settlement amount the congressional delegation believes it can pass.

''We're hoping it will be introduced as soon as possible,'' Doney said.
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