Utah’s handling of Tabby Mountain sale draws rebuke from Ute Tribe

Tribal chairman denounces ‘back-room shenanigans’ that cost tribe a chance of regaining some of its homeland.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Tabby Mountain provides scenic big game habitat in the western Uinta Basin, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. The Utah Department of Natural Resources has tried buying 28,400 acres of trust lands here to manage as wildlife preserve open to the public, but was outbid by the Ute Indian Tribe.

In response to reporting by The Salt Lake Tribune, Ute tribal officials on Thursday accused Utah state officials of engaging “back-room shenanigans” to deprive the tribe of a shot at purchasing Tabby Mountain. Once a part of the tribe’s reservation, this piece of the Uinta Basin is now state trust land, managed for the benefit of Utah’s public schools.

But the Ute Indian Tribe tribe wants this land back and is willing to pay for it, according to tribal business committee chairman Shaun Chapoose.

In 2018, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) solicited bids for this 28,500-acre block, which had long been coveted by the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR) with the aim of managing these lands as a wildlife preserve and state forest open to public recreation and hunting.

The tribe submitted a sealed bid of $47 million, however, far above what DNR initially bid, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Aug. 30 by the former SITLA staffer who oversaw the sale. Instead of accepting the tribe’s bid, SITLA extracted a $50 million offer from the state, which it could not likely cover, then scuttled the sales process and has yet to restart it, according to the whistleblower Tim Donaldson.

“It’s bad enough that the Tribe has to spend millions of dollars just to buy back its own land,” Chapoose said in a prepared statement, “but what really grates is the deceit and treachery with which the State has acted in order to block the sale from going through to the Tribe, as the highest bidder.”

His remarks came more than a week after The Tribune published a long article about the failed sale. Tribal officials, however, did not respond to requests for comment prior to the story’s publication in print on Sept. 18 and later online.

SITLA officials contend the tribe actually was not the highest bidder at the end of the process, since the state responded with something higher than the tribe’s, and the decision to suspend the sale was in the best interest of the school trust.

“SITLA appreciates and values our relationship with the Ute Indian Tribe. We take their concerns very seriously. The SITLA Board paused the process to address several concerns,” said SITLA director Michelle McConkie. “First, the beneficiaries raised concerns from the beginning about appraisal flaws and a rushed process that discouraged more competitive bids. They also weighed the potential for unintended harm to the trust’s independence from legislation aimed at sales of trust lands.”

While many Utahns want to see Tabby set aside for public access, Chapoose said the public should not lose sight of the fact that the mountain originally belonged to his tribe.

“From time immemorial these lands were part of our Tribe’s aboriginal and ancestral lands,” said Chapoose, who commended Donaldson for stepping forward.

Named for a Timpanogos tribal leader, Tabby Mountain is within the historic boundaries of what was initially known as the Uintah Valley Reservation, established in 1861. Beginning in 1902, however, tribal lands were greatly reduced after the federal government opened “surplus lands” in the Uinta Basin to white settlement resulting in today’s confusing patchwork of tribal and non-tribal land.

Now the tribe wants some of this land back and is willing to pay top dollar for scenic, untrammeled places like Tabby, which rises to an elevation of 10,000 feet in the western part of Duchesne County.

Along with 1 million other acres of formerly tribal land, Tabby was incorporated into the federal reserve set aside in 1908 and became what is known today as Ashley National Forest, according to the tribe’s statement. The U.S. Forest Service later transferred Tabby to the state, adding to its portfolio of trust lands. Under federal law and the Utah Constitution, trust lands are to be managed for the sole purpose of generating revenue for education and other public beneficiaries.

SITLA’s rules for sales of trust lands are structured to ensure the best possible deal for the school trust. But in a rush to appease state political leaders, SITLA bent those rules and wound up sabotaging any deal that did not result in DNR controlling Tabby, the complaint Donaldson filed with State Auditor’s Office alleges.

Donaldson’s complaint was the first public disclosure that the tribe bid on Tabby and that it had outbid DNR’s initial offer.

He says SITLA bosses and state lawmakers pressured him to not allow Tabby to be sold to the tribe, which was the only other bidder. Several undisclosed parties had expressed an interest, but the 30-day wintertime bidding window probably precluded others from participating.

The SITLA board voted Feb. 22, 2019 to suspend the sale after trust beneficiaries complained the flawed sales process would not result in optimal bids as required by SITLA’s mandate, according to officials.

“We want to be clear about the bids. The state, as the petitioner, bid $41 million, and the Ute Indian Tribe bid $47 million,” said SITLA spokeswoman Marla Kennedy. “The state then countered with $50 million, emphasizing that preserving public access was their top priority.”

Before Donaldson’s complaint became public, Chapoose said, he had no idea about the pressure SITLA staff members were under to make the sale go a certain way.

“Until now the Tribe believed that SITLA and the State of Utah were acting in good faith,” Chapoose said. “But it’s clear now that the State attempted to stack the deck against the Tribe from the beginning.”

SITLA’s last communication to the tribe regarding Tabby Mountain was a letter in 2019 explaining that the sale was being postponed and the state would notify the tribe when SITLA “determines to move forward,” according to Chapoose’s statement. The tribe said it is now evaluating its next steps.