A federal appeals court decided yesterday that it was unreasonable to require a historical accounting of money the government has been managing for American Indians, saying the bookkeeping chore would "take 200 years."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the government and the American Indians in their effort to block a lower court order for a detailed tally of money owed the Indians going back to 1887.

The accounting had been ordered by U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who is overseeing a class-action lawsuit in which thousands of Indians claim they were cheated out of more than $100 billion in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department.

In their appeals, the government and the Indians argued that the massive historical accounting Lamberth ordered would cost up to $13 billion -- far more than was reasonable. A three-judge appeals panel agreed, calling Lamberth's decision an abuse of discretion that was not favored by either side in the lawsuit. The issue of how to determine what is owed the Indians has gone back and forth from Lamberth to the appeals court during the almost 10 years since Blackfeet Indian Elouise Cobell filed the lawsuit. Congress is trying to resolve the issue.

An 1887 law allotted land to individual Indians and provided that the government would hold the land and any revenue from it in trust for the Indians and their survivors. For 20 years before Cobell sued, several reports criticized the government's management. In 1994, Congress ordered that the money be accounted for.

The appeals court said the accounting ordered by Lamberth, who wanted a much more detailed look at records, improperly expanded the scope of what Congress authorized. Lamberth should have allowed the Interior Department more latitude in deciding how to perform the accounting, the court said.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton said in a statement that she was pleased by the opinion. A spokesman for the Indians said they were disappointed the court did not send the case back to Lamberth to decide how to do the tally.

-- Associated Press