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Commentaries and editorials

Parties set March 2005 Goal
for Nez Perce Settlement

by Jennifer Sandmann, Times-News writer
Times-News, April 21, 2004

TWIN FALLS -- A term sheet that outlines what could be the next era of public policy in Idaho governing endangered salmon, hydropower, dams and irrigation has been finalized in one of the state's most important water rights cases, but it remains sealed at least for now.

Attorneys Tuesday updated state water Judge John Melanson on progress in reaching a settlement to the Nez Perce Tribe's claims to virtually all of the water in the Snake River. The tribe says its 1855 fishing treaty is useless, because river conditions have deteriorated salmon runs.

Tuesday's update was held in Ada County over a conference call.

"This is a significant day and a significant report to the court. We still have a lot of work ahead of us, but the good faith of the parties here have allowed us to get this far," said Peter Monson, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Confidential mediation has been under way since 1999 and covered five broad categories: the Snake River upstream of Milner, the Salmon and Clearwater drainages, the tribal component, forest practices, and general conditions.

In October 2003, the parties said that they had formulated a general term sheet. The final version of the term sheet -- which provides the basis for a settlement -- was presented to the judge Tuesday but will remain sealed for now.

Parties actively involved in the case include the tribe, the U.S. Department of Justice working on behalf of the tribe, the Native American Rights Fund, the state of Idaho, Idaho Power Co., other industries, and Idaho irrigators.

If progress continues, the term sheet will produce the final settlement by a target date of March 31, 2005. Implementing the term sheet will require, according to court records filed by the parties:

Melanson denied a request to further stay litigation in another Nez Perce water rights case that has been on hold. The tribe has agreed to drop the claims if a settlement is reached in the Snake River case.

"The participants in this case have worked hard in an attempt to reach a settlement. I cannot express enough, my appreciation for that," Melanson said. "I want to make sure you know, that I know, the task before you is extraordinarily complex with far-reaching consequences."

But he said it is the court's responsibility to see that the Snake River Basin Adjudication moves toward a close and that he cannot continue to delay proceedings.

The tribal claims are a major remaining issue to be resolved through the SRBA, a gigantic water rights case involving 38 of the state's 44 counties. The nearly 20-year-old case is providing the state with a modern catalog of water rights and resolving myriad of Idaho water law issues.

The tribe's claims to the Snake River already had been decided by former SRBA Judge Barry Wood in 1999. Wood ruled that the tribe's treaty did not amount to a water right for the entire Snake River. His ruling is on appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court but continues to be delayed by the parties as they work toward a settlement.

Jennifer Sandmann, Times-News writer
Parties set March 2005 Goal for Nez Perce Settlement
Times-News, April 21, 2004

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