If all parties can agree to an off-site mitigation plan, the Nez Perce Tribe will allow the Cherrylane Bridge replacement project to go forward despite the recent discovery of tribal artifacts at the construction site.

The Nez Perce County Commission issued a stop-work order on the bridge Monday, halting construction just before it was set to begin in earnest next week. County Deputy Prosecutor Nance Ceccarelli said Thursday that county officials only learned of the discoveries last week, despite tribal communications early last month with federal and state agencies involved in the project.

She didn’t know why the county was apparently excluded from disclosures, despite being the lead agency on the project during its development over the last 20 years. Commissioners expressed surprise and dismay at a Monday meeting before approving the stop-work order, which is set to take effect at noon today.

But in a sign that an agreement may be at hand, the commissioners will hold a special meeting at 11 a.m. today to reconsider the order.

Responding to a request for comment from the Lewiston Tribune, tribal spokeswoman Kayeloni Scott outlined the series of events that led up to the discoveries at such a late date. Scott noted that since the $21 million project is almost entirely funded with U.S. Federal Highway Administration dollars, it is subject to the National Historic Preservation Act. The act requires the identification of cultural resources and directs government agencies to “avoid, minimize or mitigate damage that the project will cause to significant resources,” Scott wrote in a statement.

The tribe reviewed and approved the cultural resource compliance for the project in 2009, since the Tribal Historic Preservation Office and the Federal Highway Administration believed there were no archaeological sites in the area based on a 2008 survey done by an archaeologist working for an engineering contractor, according to Scott. But the archaeologist did not test for subsurface remains.

Then, on March 1, a tribal Cultural Resource Program staff member informed the Historic Preservation Office that he had worked on projects in the area and “personally knew that archaeological resources are present in the project area.”

Scott’s statement said that the Cultural Resource Program coordinated with federal officials, the Idaho Transportation Department, the state Local Highway Technical Assistance Council, construction contractors and Nez Perce County to conduct excavations at the site, which discovered “abundant stone tools and fragments and a hearth” at the 1,800-by-100-foot area in question.

“The positive results were immediately shared with the above parties and (the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Council) on March 9, 2021,” Scott wrote.

In response to questions Thursday about the timing of the discoveries, Scott only said that the tribe is cooperating with all involved entities to keep the project on schedule.

In the statement, Scott said that once the discoveries were made, federal and state officials immediately determined that the project would adversely affect the newly identified site and began discussions with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office to decide how to avoid, minimize or mitigate damage to the site.

All parties agreed that since construction was imminent, avoidance or minimization was not possible without seriously impacting the project schedule and budget.

“The bridge construction will largely destroy the archaeological site, so the adverse effect will be addressed through offsite mitigation roughly equal in value to the costs of archaeological excavation,” Scott wrote.

The parties additionally agreed that construction will not stop for isolated artifacts, but archaeological monitors will be present during excavations to look for buried features like pit houses, tool caches and human burials.

“If any of these are uncovered, work in the location of the find will stop long enough for the find to be documented and treated appropriately,” Scott wrote.

The potential cost of the off-site mitigation — and who will foot the bill — was not discussed in the tribe’s statement. Ceccarelli said the county does not yet have a definitive number.

“We are working cooperatively on reviewing the scope of this aspect of the whole (Cherrylane Bridge) project to achieve resolution as quickly as possible,” Ceccarelli said in an email to the Tribune.

The Tribal Historic Preservation Office has proposed funding the Cultural Resource Program to conduct an ethnographic study of the lower Clearwater River, fund intern positions and train them to conduct the studies with tribal elders. The proposal would also fund additional archaeological work at 10 sites on the lower Snake River, including assessment of their current condition and updating of their paperwork.

Scott said the proposal should be complete today, but the details will be worked out over the next two to three years and shouldn’t affect the bridge construction schedule.

The Local Highway Technical Advisory Council has also asked the Tribal Historic Preservation Office to sign a contract with Nez Perce County to address any inadvertent discoveries of archaeological materials or human remains during construction. A draft of the contract is expected to be finalized soon, according to Scott.

Mills may be contacted at jmills@lmtribune.com or at (208) 310-1901, ext. 2266.