Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart advocated for tribal land protection during the recent White House Tribal Nations Summit in Washington, D.C.
Heart spoke on a panel with other tribal leaders, including Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American appointed to a cabinet-level position.
During a speech, Heart urged more federal action to secure trust land status on property owned by Native American Tribes.
He said the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s 20,000-acre Pinecrest Ranch near Gunnison has an unrestricted fee land status, which creates management challenges.
The tribe has applied for the ranch to be designated as reservation trust land under the federal government in order to make it part of the tribe’s overall reservation.
Heart said the purchase of the Pinecrest Ranch in the 1950s was the result of a historic legal dispute between the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Navajo Nation over reservation land in northern New Mexico.
The Navajos won jurisdiction of the land, and the Ute Mountain Utes were granted compensation to purchase land in its historic territory, Heart said.
“(Pinecrest) should have went from ‘trust status to trust status,’ but instead it went from ‘trust to restrictive fee,’” Heart said at the summit.
Fee lands are subject to state and county taxes, and trust lands are not. Indian trust lands are supported with protection by federal agencies in cooperation with tribes.
The tribe believes the fair solution is for the Department of Interior to help bring the property into trust status, including assistance with the legal property description necessary for the transfer.
The cost for a survey to identify the legal boundaries for the Pinecrest Ranch is $300,000.
The tribe owns and operates seven fee status ranches in Colorado and Utah that tribal members utilize for cattle grazing, cultural uses, recreation and hunting.
Trespass has been an issue at Pinecrest, Heart said.
Hunters have illegally entered the property, and there have been instances of poaching. Outdoor recreation and tree harvesting is occurring by nontribal members without the tribe’s permission.
Fee land owned by tribes can be problematic because they are in a kind of jurisdictional limbo, Heart said.
“We pay (Gunnison) county taxes, but when we call for law enforcement, they say this is Indian land and they have no jurisdiction,” he said.
As trust land, Pinecrest would be managed by the tribe with federal support from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including law enforcement.
“We would be able to use BIA dollars to hire law enforcement that would patrol that area,” Heart said.
The tribe is urging the Department of Interior to assist with the change to trust land status, but is also considering legislation.
At the summit, Haaland recognized the proposed changes to the fee to trust regulations.
“We know we need to make those more efficient, several of you have mentioned to this to me, that it is one of the issues you’re facing,” she said. “None of this is lost on us. I know wheels of the federal government move slow sometimes; just know that behind the scenes we are working hard to make sure your needs are met.”
In a Nov. 3 letter to the Department of Interior, U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Silt, supported the Ute Mountain Ute position on the Pinecrest land status, and challenged a BIA determination in June that it was fee land.
“There appears to be a disturbing lack of support from the government toward the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s general efforts to restore their Tribal lands,” she stated. “Instead of addressing the Tribe’s particular concerns regarding reservation land holdings, the Bureau of Indian Affairs focused far too much on arbitrary and tangential case examples.”
During his speech at the summit, Heart noted there are 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., but only 326 have a reservation land base.
“These other 200-plus tribes still don’t have an identity called home, and some have been relocated,” he said. “On fee to trust, we have to keep federal government feet to the fire and the obligations they have” to Indian Country.