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Our View: Clarification first on 1984 Act in annexation talks

Tribe, city reference same legislation

La Posta Road south of Durango has much potential for light industrial use, as well as housing, as it winds within Southern Ute Indian Tribe reservation boundaries. News stories, meetings and rumors position the tribe as facing off with the city of Durango over possible land annexations of private property for this kind of economic growth and development.

But this narrative will likely change.

At some point, the parties needing an agreement may shift to between private property owners within the reservation’s boundaries and SUIT.

Here’s why:

State legislation the tribe is seeking, giving absolute jurisdiction over annexations involving private property, may conflict with Public Law 98-290, a congressional act passed in 1984 that seems to limit the tribe’s jurisdiction to Indian trust lands.

On April 17, the Colorado Senate Committee on State, Veterans & Military Affairs indicated support for SUIT’s position and referred Senate Bill 24-193 to the full Senate for further discussion. More conversations are exactly what’s needed.

But writing this legislation may be an exercise in futility. PL 98-290 appears to deny SUIT jurisdiction in civil matters over property within reservation boundaries that are not Indian trust land.

Durango attorney Mark Morgan wrote in a email to David C. Smith, representing SUIT, “to understand your interpretation and understanding of how these two pieces of legislation can be reconciled.”

Morgan asked for insight on “the distinction, if any, between Indian trust land and land within the exterior boundary of the Southern Ute reservation that is not owned by Indians or being held in trust for Indians.”

This must be made crystal clear first.

After this explanation, Durango will have a public meeting with City Council hearing opposing sides. Then, the city can take a position on the state legislation.

On April 19 in a statement to The Durango Herald, Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker said annexation of reservation land without SUIT’s consent is illegal per an 1868 treaty reaffirmed by the 1874 Brunot Agreement, which says the reservation was “set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the (Tribe).”

Last month, Baker told the state General Assembly that Durango is infringing on its sovereignty by pursuing annexations within tribal boundaries.

Baker and SUIT Vice Chairman Lorelei Cloud said the city is repeating history by ignoring treaties more than 100 years old with the federal government and 1984 legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress, to identify and preserve the tribe’s jurisdiction.

Both parties are referencing this same 1984 Act, which must be figured out first.

Any hint of taking land from Native Americans is triggering. Add the checkerboard boundaries within SUIT’s reservation; the role of federal, state and county government; early homesteaders; and private property owners, and you end up with a tangle of complicating factors.

The term “cross-jurisdictional” is practically an understatement.

Chances are, annexation isn’t a battle the city wants and would briskly walk away from it. Durango is already engaged with SUIT on the Three Springs development project, on hold until the tribe identifies the water right it will use.

If the tribe isn’t eager for that possibility of an industrial project – something Bodo didn’t fully realize as it’s mostly office parks – annexation won’t happen. Even though SUIT could benefit from city infrastructure, including water, sewer and other utilities that would follow.

But SUIT will make final decisions.

Meanwhile, private property owners within reservation boundaries are on the sidelines asking, what about us?