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SUMMARY: Putting acrimony behind, parties seek cooperative management of reservation's irrigation.

Back in 1999, we lamented the toll exacted from the protracted conflict over control of irrigation on the Flathead Indian Reservation between the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and a coalition of irrigators.

"Maybe sometime in the future we'll see greater cooperation among these parties. But it probably won't be soon," we said in an editorial.

We don't know whether this qualifies as soon or not, but the happy day is at hand. The tribes and the irrigators' Joint Board of Control recently announced they are at the brink of resolving the long and litigious dispute.

"After years of acrimonious activity, the parties are now working together to reach a mutually acceptable solution to settle long-standing historical areas of dispute and controversy," the tribes and JBC said in a recent joint communique.

All that conflict springs, perhaps naturally, from a complex situation. At issue is an irrigation system on the reservation where the tribes have explicit treaty rights giving them control over resources. The irrigation system began nearly a century ago so American Indians on the reservation could farm. But Congress later opened the reservation for settlement by nontribal members. Now the bulk of the irrigating is done by farmers and ranchers who aren't tribal members, but still desire to have a say in management of the system.

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Many lawsuits have gotten the parties nowhere, despite what must be great cumulative costs. Now they're talking about cooperation - jointly managing the irrigation system.

Resolving differences after long conflict is a very difficult thing to do. It requires a great deal of maturity, courage and leadership. This is a hugely important step that all western Montanans should welcome and encourage. Working together, as partners, surely they can achieve far better results for everyone than they ever did through acrimony.

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