Ute lawsuit says Utah agencies conspired to prevent tribe from purchasing ancestral lands

Elk roam at a ranch near Tabby Mountain in Duchesne County on Dec. 19, 2011. A recent lawsuit alleges state agencies participated in a racially discriminatory conspiracy to keep the Ute Indian Tribe from purchasing the mountain.

Elk roam at a ranch near Tabby Mountain in Duchesne County on Dec. 19, 2011. A recent lawsuit alleges state agencies participated in a racially discriminatory conspiracy to keep the Ute Indian Tribe from purchasing the mountain. (Winston Armani, KSL-TV)

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TABIONA, Duchesne County — The Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation filed a federal lawsuit Friday accusing state agencies of racially discriminatory conspiracy to prevent the tribe from purchasing ancestral land just outside its reservation.

The lawsuit centers on the sale of Tabby Mountain, 28,500 acres of prime wildlife habitat that falls inside the historic boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. The mountain was named after Chief Tabby-To-Kwanah, who led the Timpanogos Nation when they were forcibly displaced from Utah Valley to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in the 1800s.

In 2018, the Ute Indian Tribe saw and took a chance to reclaim Tabby Mountain when the Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration put it up for sale. But two state agencies rigged the bidding process to keep the land out of the tribe's hands, according to the lawsuit. The tribe is seeking a court order that directs the state to sell the property to the tribe and pay for damages.

"Nothing evinces racial animus more clearly than the intentional, purposeful and/or knowing diversion of land from a minority population in order to make that land available for the primary or exclusive benefit of the nonminority population. It is an incontrovertible fact of American history that non-Indian greed for land and resources is what has motivated nearly all, if not all, of the racial cleansing and genocidal campaigns that non-Indians in the United States have waged against the Native American populations in the U.S.," the lawsuit reads. "Plaintiff alleges that it is racial and ethnic animus of this stripe that has motivated the wrongs (the tribe) alleges in their complaint."

According to court documents, the tribe substantially outbid the only other bidder, which was the Utah Department of Natural Resources. It planned on turning the property into a wildlife preserve and state forest.

The department bid $41 million, while the tribe bid $47 million. The department disclosed that it did not have the resources for its bid and that it was contingent on receiving money from both the U.S. and the Utah Legislature.

Under the law, the School and Institutional Trust Land Administration was required to sell to the tribe or demand a higher bid from the Department of Natural Resources, the lawsuit alleges. Court documents show that prior to the tribe's bid, the administration had concluded that selling the land for a minimum of $41 million was in the best interest of the trust. The administration is charged with maximizing revenue to fund Utah public schools.

The lawsuit claims that state agencies did not want the land to fall into the tribe's hands and began working behind the scenes to prevent that outcome. There were discussions about whether tribal ownership over the land would result in limited or zero access to the land by the general public; however, suggestions from a later whistleblower to negotiate with the tribe for possible deed restrictions for public sportsmen were ignored.

The Department of Natural Resources submitted a second bid for $50 million despite having still not secured funding to make good on the bid. The state agencies were unsuccessful in lobbying state lawmakers for the funds, according to the lawsuit. The administration then suspended the sale without giving the tribe or other parties an opportunity to submit additional bids, meaning there was no final state action the tribe could appeal.

"That behind-the-scenes response was quintessential discrimination based upon race, ethnicity, national origin and religion," the lawsuit reads. "(School and Institutional Trust Land Administration) officers' intentional decision to wrongfully discriminate was also a violation of those officers' fiduciary duty to the trust and more generally to the state's children. They decided that keeping the land away from the Indians was more important than taking $46,976,000 into trust."

The lawsuit also alleges that the two state agencies took steps to deceive the tribe and the public about the failed sale, including creating false pretexts about the true nature of why the sale was suspended and falsely claiming that the suspension was only temporary.

Specifics about the process were not available until media reports of a whistleblower complaint last year that alleged "the bid sale was rigged from the beginning to prevent the tribe from acquiring Tabby Mountain," states the lawsuit. The whistleblower, then-Director of the Utah Land Trust Protection Tim Donaldson, filed his complaint the day after he filed a formal complaint with the Utah state auditor.

The lawsuit names the Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration; its former and current directors David Ure and Michelle McConkie, respectively; former Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler and Utah Gov. Spencer Cox as defendants.

"The Trust Lands Administration is aware of the filing and strongly disagrees with the assertions made," the administration said in a statement. "The 2019 sales effort was suspended in the face of criticisms from our beneficiaries about the appraisal and marketing process on such a large and unique block, along with questions concerning the state's desire to ensure continued public access to the land. SITLA greatly appreciates its relationship with the Ute Tribe and its interest in this block. SITLA retains the property and continues to evaluate potential win-win outcomes.

"The Department of Natural Resources said it has worked cooperatively with the tribe for many years and is "saddened the tribe feels the state has mistreated them regarding the Tabby Mountain matter.

"Preserving public access and maintaining habitat for wildlife have been and continue to be the singular goals of acquiring this property. Racial discrimination did not play any role," the department said. "The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources currently has a Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This proposed purchase would have added this land to the wildlife management area to provide public access for wildlife watching and hunting. DNR's bids were made in good faith, and the money pledged in those bids would have been paid to SITLA had the property been transferred to DNR."

The lawsuit states that had the tribe acquired Tabby Mountain, the land would have been open to use by all tribal members for cultural, religious and spiritual purposes, including collecting plants and medicines and hunting.

"Monetary damages are also inadequate here because of the tribe's unique and specific interests in Tabby Mountain," the lawsuit states. "Tabby Mountain, and the plants, natural resources, springs and medicines found on that property have unique religious and spiritual significance to the tribe and to tribal members. For the tribe and its members, monetary compensation is not an adequate remedy. Reacquisition of the surface estate is the only adequate remedy for the tribe."

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Sydnee Chapman Gonzalez is a reporter and recent Utah transplant. She works at the Utah Investigative Journalism Project and was previously at KSL.com and the Wenatchee World in Washington. Her reporting has focused on marginalized communities, homelessness and local government. She grew up in Arizona and has lived in various parts of Mexico. During her free time, she enjoys hiking, traveling, rock climbing and embroidery.


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