Fearing Utah could lose millions in school revenue, attorney general wants state to step in on Ute Tribe’s land lawsuits

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes holds a brief news conference at the Utah Capitol on Monday, Jan. 6, 2014.

Seeing a huge threat to Utah’s interests, the state’s top legal officials intend to intervene in lawsuits the Ute Indian Tribe recently filed against the federal government seeking compensation for water rights and mineral riches that the tribe contends belong to it.

The suits alleged these natural resources were unjustly transferred to ranchers, drillers and others who have profited from tapping the historic 1.8 million-acre Uncompahgre Reservation, the sparsely populated hydrocarbon treasure chest in the southeast part of the Uinta Basin.

Utah needs to be engaged to defend its access to hundreds of state trust sections, administered by the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, scattered around the Uncompahgre, generating millions in oil and gas revenue for Utah schools, Attorney General Sean Reyes told Utah lawmakers Tuesday.

“The complaint doesn’t name SITLA,” he said, “but everything about the case has to do with SITLA.”

The case, which Reyes characterized as one of “epic proportions,” potentially pits a Utah tribe against its home state since the reparations the tribe seeks arise from resources the federal government has given, sold and leased to nontribal members.

“There are lots of reasons for the [Ute] nation to be upset over the long history of the tribes. The [Ute] nation needs to do what it feels it needs to do to protect itself,” Reyes said in an interview. “My job is to protect the state and its interests.”

The Uncompahgre suit and a sister suit having do with water rights were filed last March in U.S. District Court in Washington. The purpose is “to hold the United States accountable to the solemn promises it made to the tribe pursuant to its treaty obligations that it is now trying to break by taking the position the tribe’s reservation no longer exists,” the Ute Tribal Business Committee said in a prepared statement at the time.

The tribe, which has been locked in a 40-year legal battle with the state concerning sovereignty of the lands within its historic reservation boundaries, promised to “vehemently fight” any effort by Utah to interfere.

“There is no lawful basis for the State to intervene in a dispute between the United States and the Tribe, stemming from promises the United States made before Utah was a state,” the tribe’s law firm said in a press statement Wednesday. “The Tribe’s expectation is that the State of Utah is going to attempt to use this suit, in which it has no interest, to continue with its never-ending attempt to overturn federal law which respects tribal sovereignty and to attempt to get the federal courts to break the promise that the United States made to the Tribe in exchange for the land on which most of the people in Utah live.”

The Ute nation has also filed companion suits in the Court of Federal Claims, seeking $500 million in compensation for its lost resources. Although Utah would not be on the hook for that money, it still has much at stake in the dispute, according to Reyes

“If the tribe were to prevail, access to SITLA lands would be complicated,” Reyes said. “We would essentially need to negotiate rights of way, and the tribe would determine that. And moreover there is nothing preventing them from moving on and targeting SITLA lands specifically.”

The federal government ceded these “trust” lands to Utah at statehood in the form of four 1-square-mile sections per 36-section township within the new state’s boundaries. Today, SITLA administers about 3 million acres and an additional 1 million acres of subsurface minerals for the benefit of an education endowment, now larded with $2.3 billion.

These federal trust-land grants to Utah included 200,000 acres within the historic boundaries of the Uncompahgre Reservation, which President Chester Arthur established in 1882, more than a decade before Utah’s 1896 statehood.

The Uncompahgre, east of established Ute communities, was arid and largely uninhabited. It later became valued for oil and gas and other minerals.

The tribe’s suit asks the court to declare that those lands should have been managed in trust for the tribe, to “restore” them to trust status and to order the federal government to pay for the land and resources that have been transferred to Utah and others.

These lands account for 28 percent of all SITLA’s income, which amounted to $80 million last year.

“That is why we need to be at the table in terms of our legal rights to defend the state and at least make sure SITLA is represented. If you let the federal government and the tribe ultimately make the decisions, they could potentially throw the state under the bus,” Reyes said. “I have to make sure if it’s a decision by the court or a negotiated settlement, that we are at the table. If you want SITLA lands moved somewhere else, we can put that on the table.”

Reyes has yet to decide whether to formally intervene in the lawsuit or pursue some other course.

“Our intention is to do something. What that is we don’t know yet,” he said. “We are consulting with our client, SITLA, but there are lots of counties, Uintah primarily.”