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The Ute Indian Tribe says it's severing ties with Utah trust-lands managers over Rep. Rob Bishop's proposal to trade 100,000 acres of public land within the historic boundaries of the tribe's reservation.
For the past several weeks the tribe has been arguing that the proposed exchange insults tribal sovereignty, given its long-standing legal claim to 4.2 million acres in the Uinta Basin within the historic Uncompahgre and Uintah Valley reservations.
Tribal officials have publicly insisted, to no avail, that the Utah Republican drop these land-exchange provisions from his Public Lands Initiative, or PLI, which he introduced in Congress two months ago. Their ire has now reached such a pitch that they say the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) is no longer welcome in Indian Country, wrote Shaun Chapoose, chairman of the tribal business committee, in a letter to the agency Monday.
The tribe is now abandoning hard-forged agreements that aimed to free up mineral wealth SITLA holds under the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation's Hill Creek Extension.
Spurring the letter was the Sept. 13 testimony of SITLA director David Ure, who reiterated his agency's hopes to acquire consolidated energy-rich lands in the Uinta Basin. This proposal is one of many provisions in the PLI, which the House Natural Resources Committee advanced on Thursday.
The bill affects some 18 million acres of public lands in seven eastern Utah counties, specifying areas where either conservation or development should be prioritized.
Under the PLI, SITLA would exchange sections scattered around Grand, Emery, San Juan and Carbon counties for a huge block of Bureau of Land Management-administered land on the East Tavaputs Plateau.
In a reply letter to the tribe, Ure affirmed SITLA's respect for tribal jurisdiction, but said the land in question is not owned by the tribe, but by the American public.
In a 40-year-old legal case, the tribe has successfully argued that Congress has never "diminished" the Utes' historic reservation boundaries, which were thrown open to white settlement more than a century ago. Armed with a string of favorable appellate rulings, the tribe is asserting ownership of public land within "Indian Country." SITLA's bid to obtain such lands amounts to a "land grab," tribal officials say, at least while the matter remains in dispute.
But state officials reject that characterization. Ure noted the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that the tribe's assertion of jurisdiction and ownership over these lands are separate issues. His agency had looked forward to developing lands acquired through the PLI in partnership with the tribe, he said.
"We strongly disagree, however, with any claim of tribal ownership of BLM lands in the historic Uncompahgre [Reservation], and believe these public lands are available for conservation land exchange," Ure wrote.
SITLA's mission is to maximize revenues off trust lands to build up an endowment supporting schools. Ironically, its effort to trade hard-to-develop sections with consolidated mineral-rich blocks is undermining its key objective of getting more Uinta Basin holdings into production.
Such ambitions require tribal participation, which appears to be in serious jeopardy.
"The Tribe hoped to build on our relationship and work to pass legislation providing for joint future energy development," the tribal letter says to SITLA. "However, your proposal to take lands from within our Reservation will now foreclose any future opportunities for the Tribe and SITLA to work on jointly developing resources within the Uintah Basin or to work collaboratively on other energy development initiatives."
The East Tavaputs Plateau trade in the PLI, which few believe has much chance of passing, now appears to have derailed SITLA's Hill Creek deal.
This congressionally-authorized exchange would enable SITLA to trade out minerals it holds in the Hill Creek Extension's southern end in Grand County, a roadless area the tribe intends to protect for its wildlife, scenery and spiritual significance. In exchange, SITLA would have received 9,000 acres of mineral estate in the north end.
Two years ago, the Ute tribe celebrated the Hill Creek exchange as a way to balance conservation and drilling in partnership with the state. At the time, the tribe's jurisdictional fight with state and county officials had reignited in the courts, and it has since intensified.
The Chapoose letter asserts that the tribe has revoked any access SITLA previously enjoyed to reservation lands. Any SITLA staff or contractor "found on any Indian Country lands within the Reservation … will be cited for civil trespass and removed from the Reservation," it says.
SITLA, which oversees numerous oil and gas leases under development within the old Uncompahgre reservation, contends the tribe lacks the authority to remove its operators.
Tribal officials are also incensed with Ure's testimony that the exchange would help school children, including Ute children.
SITLA "should be universally condemned for attempting to involve the children of the Ute Indian Tribe in this legislation, which would in fact have genocidal and devastating impacts on our children if passed," Chapoose wrote.
Ure's letter offered an apology for any offense given, saying none was intended and "a fair-minded review of the videotape of the hearing would demonstrate the same."
Brian Maffly covers public lands for The Salt Lake Tribune. Maffly can be reached at email@example.com or 801-257-8713.