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Nez Perce Tribe begins shaping plans for water-deal dollars


LAPWAI, Idaho (AP) - Leaders of the Nez Perce Tribe are looking inward for ideas on how to spend and manage more than $95 million from May's deal with the federal government over Snake River water rights.

On June 25, the tribe's governing board hosted the first of three meetings to gather ideas for spending the money, now held in three separate trust accounts and managed by the BIA.

Under the terms of the deal, the tribe cannot spend a single dime until it approves a blueprint for how it intends to use the money and manage land and other resources included in the deal. The plan must also be approved by the Interior Department.

The tribe and federal officials officially signed the settlement in May, three years after it was first announced by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and former Interior Secretary Gale Norton.

Under terms of the agreement, the Nez Perce agreed to drop most of their claims to water in the Snake River basin in exchange for cash, 11,000 acres of land now managed by the Bureau of Land Management and salmon conservation measures, including requirements for water releases from dams to aid migrating fish.

''Until we develop a management plan, none of that money can be spent,'' Samuel N. Penney, Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee chairman, told about 50 tribal members at the June 25 meeting.

The agreement resulted from state efforts to resolve more than 150,000 water right claims in the Snake River basin.

In 1993, based on a treaty signed with the federal government in 1855, the Nez Perce filed thousands of water rights claims to try to establish minimum stream flows for migrating fish. The state prevailed in the first round in court, but the tribe appealed and a settlement was reached as the case was pending before the Idaho Supreme Court.

The agreement provided for congressional funding of three trust funds totaling $95.8 million, including:

"About $60.1 million in a water and fisheries fund to be used for improving fish habitat, water resource development and cultural preservation.

"A water supply fund with $23 million to be used primarily to improve water supplies and delivery and sewage projects in tribal communities.

"About $12.7 million designated solely for fish habitat and restoration in the Salmon and Clearwater River basins.

Rules limit the tribe somewhat in how the money can be spent, but Penney and other leaders are encouraging members to share ideas and priorities.

Officials say it could take at least six months to craft and submit to federal officials a plan suitable for approval.

Tribal officials also say they are seeking input through a survey, but so far have just a 2.4 percent return rate on 2,500 surveys mailed to members.