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Ute Tribe Waits for Congress to Make a Move

GRAPHIC: A land swap between the State of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe appears to be stalled in the U.S. Senate after passing in the House in June.
GRAPHIC: A land swap between the State of Utah and the Ute Indian Tribe appears to be stalled in the U.S. Senate after passing in the House in June.
September 7, 2012

FORT DUCHESNE, Utah - Perhaps no one in Utah is more anxious for Congress to end its summer break and get back to work this month than members of the Ute Indian Tribe. A bill that allows the exchange of mineral rights on one parcel of land for another on the Ute reservation was passed by the House in June, but is stalled in the Senate.

The land swap is being sought by the tribe to preserve its hunting, fishing and religious practices. And Tribal Business Committee chair Irene Cuch says they want to keep these 18,000 wild acres from being drilled for oil and gas.

"We are concerned, probably because we thought it was going to get on the agenda earlier. If the Senate would pass this bill, in fact, it would make a long-standing dream come true for the Ute Indian tribe and its membership."

The land in question has been used by the tribe since the 1940s, and this idea originated in 2005. In Congress, the bill has been bundled into a larger package of legislation, some of which is controversial. So, the tribe wants the bill to have its own hearing – which for now, depends on the committee chair, Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico.

The swap gives the Utah State and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) the mineral rights on another part of the reservation instead, on land that is better suited to development. John Andrews, SITLA associate director, says consolidating the land will allow the state and tribe to benefit, and the wild lands to stay wild.

"The tribe's very interested in economic development, to support their jobs and income services for their membership. So, there's a business relationship that we think will be good for both sides."

The land swap for what is called the Hill Creek Extension has bipartisan support of the Utah congressional delegation. The tribe's attorney, Jeremy Patterson, says the only concerns were raised by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which contends the two parcels of land are unequal in terms of their mineral value.

"The tribe does not share that concern. You know, the tribe's placed value in having the lands protected as a wilderness area, as a sacred area. And while you may not be able to put a monetary value to that interest, the interest is still there."

The tribe believes that without the legislation, there won't be sufficient protection to prevent mining or drilling. Patterson says Congressional approval is needed since federal land and mineral rights complicate the deal.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT