SALT LAKE CITY, June 6 (UPI) — The Ute Indian Tribe of the Ouray and Uintah Reservation has filed a lawsuit alleging Utah state agencies conspired to stop it from buying Tabby Mountain, a 28,500-acre piece of its ancestral land, even though it submitted the high bid of $47 million.
The suit claims the defendants arranged in 2019 for the Utah Department of Natural Resources, which was the only other bidder, to submit a second bid that was higher than the tribe’s but also a sham because the agency did not have enough money to make the purchase.
DNR and Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration officers “immediately began working behind the scenes to try to figure out a way to stop the sale to Indians,” the suit says.
“That behind-the-scenes response was quintessential discrimination based upon race, ethnicity, national origin and religion,” the tribe alleges in the suit, which was filed in May in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City.
If the sale had gone through, the tribe’s intent was to allow its members to use the land for cultural and religious purposes and to hunt and trap there, according to the suit.
SITLA is an independent administrative agency that manages Utah’s trust lands to generate revenue that funds the state’s public schools and some higher education organizations.
The suit seeks a declaration by the court that SITLA’s decision not to sell the land to the tribe was based on unlawful discrimination, an order requiring the agency to sell the land to the tribe and an award of unspecified monetary damages.
SITLA and DNR deny the suit’s allegations.
“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 said in a statement.
“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 DNR said it has worked cooperatively with the Ute Tribe for many years and is “saddened” the tribe feels mistreated in 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,” the agency said in a statement.
“Racial discrimination did not play any role. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources currently has a Tabby Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This proposed purchase would have added this land to the WMA 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.”
About half of the more than 3,000 Ute Indian Tribe’s members live on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah. The tribe owns the rights to the minerals on some of Tabby Mountain’s parcels and oversees significant oil and gas deposits.
If the tribe had acquired the surface estate, the land would have been open to use by all members equally, based on its collective ownership law, the suit says.
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, according to the suit.
“Members of the Ute Indian Tribe have a distinct religious/spiritual history, and all or many Ute members continue to practice that religion to varying extents,” the suit says. “The tribe’s religious practices are independent from the Abrahamic religions or any other religions which originated outside of the Americas.”
The suit says the SITLA Board of Trustees concluded unanimously in December 2018 that selling the land for a minimum bid of $41 million was in the best interests of the trust. All eligible bidders had until 5 p.m. Feb. 15, 2019, to mail a sealed bid, signed order of purchase and $1 million earnest money deposit to the agency.
The Ute Tribe’s bid was $46,976,000 and DNR’s bid was $41 million, the suit says. The tribe said in a press release that it obtained documents cited in the suit through Utah’s state open records laws.
“DNR disclosed in its bid that it did not even have the resources to pay the amount it had bid, and that its bid was therefore contingent on it receiving money from both the United States and the Utah legislature,” the suit says.
A few days later, members of the Land Trust Protection and Advocacy Committee expressed concerns that if the tribe owned Tabby Mountain, “Indians would control access to the land and could prevent non-Indians from accessing the land,” the suit says.
SITLA allowed DNR to submit a new bid of $50 million, then publicly announced it was temporarily suspending the sale to review questions about marketing and appraisal, the suit says. After that, records show the only substantial action SITLA allegedly took was to seek to find other ways to sell the land to a buyer other than the tribe.
Citing the documents it had obtained, “the tribe alleges that SITLA’s claimed reason for ‘suspending’ the sale was transparent pretext, to attempt to hide from the tribe and the public the fact that SITLA was refusing to sell to the tribe based upon obvious and unlawful discrimination against the Ute Indian Tribe,” the tribe’s press release says.
The suit alleges SITLA is holding the sale in a suspended status because canceling it would be a final agency action, which would permit the tribe or trust beneficiaries to appeal to state courts.
“The tribe and its members reasonably relied upon the expectation that SITLA’s representation to the public and to the tribe, that SITLA was only temporarily suspending the sale while it reviewed appraisal and marketing issues was truthful,” the suit says.
“The tribe and its members have been harmed by their reasonable reliance.”