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Southern Ute Indian Tribe accuses Durango of illegal land grab in Senate committee hearing

City to host information session about La Posta Road project Monday
The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is pushing for state legislation that would give it and other tribes absolute jurisdiction to approve or deny annexation requests involving property residing within the reservation’s checkerboard boundaries. (Durango Herald file)

La Posta Road south of Durango is a promising site for economic growth and development for property owners living along the river corridor south of Durango and for the city itself. But the Southern Ute Indian Tribe has stakes in it, too.

After all, much of the land resides within SUIT reservation boundaries. And the tribe does not appear to be keen on the idea of letting the city annex whatever private land it likes without first getting the tribe’s consent.

Now, the tribe is pushing for state legislation that would give it and other tribes absolute jurisdiction to approve or deny annexation requests concerning property residing within the reservation’s checkerboard boundaries.

The tribe argued to the Colorado Senate Committee on State, Veterans, & Military Affairs on Wednesday that the city of Durango is making an illegal land grab along La Posta Road (County Road 213) within reservation boundaries.

Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council Vice Chairman Lorelei Cloud said in her testimony that records obtained by the tribe through open records requests reveal that the city has petitioned landowners to annex their properties into city limits with assurances the move would raise their private property values.

Lorelei Cloud, vice chair of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, stands for a portrait in April 2023 on the banks of the Los Pinos River, also known as Pine River, in the heart of the Southern Ute Reservation where water plays a critical role to the tribe. (Jeremy Wade Shockley/The Southern Ute Drum)

She said the discussions were intentionally kept secret from the tribe to circumvent its jurisdiction.

But the city of Durango says it is not trying to be covert or go around the Utes.

“The city will often provide a sample of an annexation petition for private property owners to consider when they are going to request annexation,” said Tom Sluis, city spokesman, on Friday. “This is not telling them one way or the other whether they should seek that annexation. It’s just trying to make the process more functional.”

He added the tribe has never once mentioned in joint meetings with Durango City Council “that we were trying to seize their land,” and it was not and is not attempting to do so.

The Senate committee indicated support for SUIT’s position, although it decided more discussion was warranted, and voted unanimously to refer the bill to the Senate as a whole for further discussion.

That spurred the city into action. On Thursday, it announced a special meeting is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday in the Eolus Room at the Community Recreation Center. The purpose of the meeting is to provide residents with information about the history of the La Posta Road project.

Sluis said the project has been on the city’s mind for the past 20 years.

Durango Community Development Director Scott Shine said the La Posta Road area first appeared in the city’s 1997 comprehensive plan. It was depicted as a potential area for urban development.

Discussions with landowners and “other stakeholders” took place from 2007-2013. A plan was jointly formed with the county in 2013, he said.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe is pursuing state legislation that would ensure it has authority to approve or disapprove any annexations, including into the city of Durango, involving property within tribal boundaries. (Durango Herald file)

At meetings with Durango City Council over the past year, the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council has repeatedly sent the message that it wants to be included in discussions about development plans for La Posta Road and other projects of mutual interest such as a proposed Lake Nighthorse pipeline.

Tension has always present in the meetings. But for the past year, each meeting concluded with affirmations from the city that it is eager to work with the tribe to reach an agreement that serves both parties’ mutual interests.

The tribe amplified resistance last month, however, when Chairman Melvin Baker addressed the Colorado General Assembly and said the city of Durango is infringing on its sovereignty by pursuing annexations within tribal boundaries.

The Southern Ute Drum reported on March 22, “Chairman Baker further encouraged the Legislature to assist the Tribe in resisting efforts by the City of Durango to annex lands within the Reservation boundaries.”

Reservations, treaties, federal legislation and tribal sovereignty

Baker and Cloud on Wednesday said the city is repeating history by ignoring over 100-year-old treaties with the federal government and 1984 legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress to identify and preserve the tribe’s jurisdiction.

“In 1984, the exterior boundaries of my reservation was confirmed by federal statute and jurisdiction within the reservation between the state and the Tribe was established,” Cloud said to the Senate committee. “That really should have settled this matter.”

Sluis said it is unclear what the tribe is asking for when it refers to their land.

“The land within the reservation boundaries? Their ancestral lands? Land that is currently owned by non-Indians but which they still think should be theirs?” he said. “We are still dealing with the consequences of westward expansion from 150 years ago, for better or worse.”

Property owners in La Plata County and within reservation boundaries expressed similar confusion to the Senate committee on Wednesday.

Dale Kneller owns property in the La Posta Road area and said he opposes the bill in question.

A crew with Crossfire LLC buries a waterline along La Posta Road (County Road 213) in 2015. The area has long been eyed by the city of Durango as a promising place for industrial and residential growth. But part of the area lies within the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation boundaries, and the tribe is not keen on allowing anyone to annex private properties without its consent. (Durango Herald file)

He said the property was first patented in 1913 and has never been considered tribal land to his knowledge, although it does reside within tribal boundaries.

“I think there’s a distinguishment there between tribal land and private land and the tribal boundary,” he said, although he admitted he doesn’t understand how current law applies to a situation such as his.

J. Paul Brown, another property owner within reservation boundaries, said the proposed bill is a “slippery slope.”

“Say we’d like to subdivide,” he said. “Well, in the future we have to get permission from the Southern Ute Tribe to do that. This is a taking of our property and it is my understanding that the property that is in question here that the city of Durango wants to annex is private property.”

In a written statement to The Durango Herald, Baker said on Friday 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).”

“History tells us of centuries of broken promises by the federal government to our Tribal Nations,” he said. “That was certainly true with the Ute Nation, as the Reservation was opened by the federal government to homesteading in the early 1900s in an effort to destroy the Tribe. But the confusion that this created was resolved in the 1980s.”

At past joint meetings, city department heads told the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council they would have city staff meetings with SUIT staff members to further conversations about La Posta Road and other projects.

Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council Chairman Melvin Baker is advocating for legislation cementing the tribe’s oversight of annexations involving property within the reservation’s boundaries. (Lucas Brady Woods/KUNC)

Baker said those conversations never occurred.

“The Tribe provided information on the legal issues regarding the project 7 months ago,” he said. “Nothing has been heard from the City. We have reached out to the City to discuss this issue. No response has been received.”

Shine declined to comment about whether the city followed up with the tribe through updates or staff meetings.

Sluis said the city understands the tribe wants to be kept in the loop about La Posta Road, and staff have made ongoing efforts to communicate with the tribe what has been happening with the project.

He said numerous public meetings over the years and coverage in the local media have addressed the project in addition to the ongoing joint meetings between the city and the tribe.

The city hasn’t taken an official position on the legislation discussed on Wednesday. Sluis said City Council is seeking more information.

Colorado Sen. Cleave Simpson, who represents La Plata County in District 6, said at the Senate committee meeting the issue at hand involves reservations, treaties, federal legislation and concerns about tribal sovereignty. The proposed bill “does exactly what the tribe is authorized to do and pursue.”

He said tribe’s request to have authority over approving annexations on reservation lands is within their sovereign rights.

“I continue to try to work to find a path forward that’s more collaborative with the landowners and the city,” he said. “But I fully support the bill. I believe it’s well within the tribe’s authorizations and their jurisdiction.”

cburney@durangoherald.com



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