Ute Tribe says new Utah bill feels like retaliation over Tabby Mountain dispute

Editor’s note: Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed this bill into law on March 12, 2024.

The chairman of the Ute Indian Tribe says a new bill from Utah lawmakers feels like a targeted effort to block the tribe from buying back more of its ancestral homelands — and he is calling it “clearly” retaliatory.

Ute Chairman Julius T. Murray III, along with the tribe’s governing Business Committee, are taking the rare step of speaking out on the state-level legislation, a process they typically don’t weigh in on as a sovereign nation. But they say it is crucial for them to stand in lockstep opposition now to HB262 from Utah state Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, before it moves ahead this legislative session.

It passed through committee last week and goes next to the full Utah House for a vote.

HB262 would give the Utah Department of Natural Resources preferential and exclusive first access, without any other private bidders like the tribe or any advertising, to buy the largest plots put up for sale by the Utah Trust Lands Administration — which was recently renamed from what it’s more commonly known as: the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA.

“Whenever the state of Utah gets caught in a rule they made themselves, they like to move the line,” Murray told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview.

The administration oversees millions acres of land within the state’s borders. It’s charged with managing those trust lands, either by collecting on mineral rights, timber sales, water leases, other shares or by selling the property. The funds then go into a trust created in 1994 meant primarily to benefit Utah’s schoolchildren, with that now hitting $3.3 billion.

Currently, when it sells land, the administration is supposed to publicly post and advertise it in an attempt to get the highest bid and the most money for schools. That’s its explicit purpose in state law.

The bill comes, though, after controversy in 2018 when the Ute Tribe had bid on a coveted 28,500-acre plot surrounding and including Tabby Mountain in eastern Utah, which was once part of the tribe’s reservation before it was taken by the federal government roughly a century ago. It is named for the late tribal chief, Tabby-To-Kwanah.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah’s Tabby Mountain provides scenic big game habitat in the western Uinta Basin, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

The parcel was put up for sale by the Utah Trust Lands Administration. And the tribe had the initial highest bid at $47 million. But instead of taking the tribe’s offer, the Utah administration quickly pulled the parcel off the market and suspended the sale, offering no explanation for the decision at the time.

Later, in 2022, a whistleblower revealed that behind the scenes the trust administration had been pressured by state lawmakers to keep the sale of Tabby Mountain off the radar of other buyers, to not drive the price up. That way the Utah Department of Natural Resources could acquire it at an amount that state legislators were willing to pay (as they appropriate funding for the department) and the land could be used as a public nature preserve and hunting haven, that could also continue to be capitalized off of for the state. If the Utes or another buyer got the land, it would become private.

The tribe still found out about the sale, though, and offered more than the DNR, which bid $41 million. To win, the department had to offer more and did. But that’s when the trust administration called off the process, saying it was worried about the advertising and appraisal of the plot.

The tribe has since filed suit — which is currently pending in court — alleging it was discriminated against when the trust administration declined to sell it the land despite being the highest bid; and it is demanding the land be sold to the tribe under the original offer. The state has responded, saying there was no racism involved and the trust administration has the right to cancel a sale of its lands at any point before a contract is signed.

The latest bill, HB262, Murray alleges, appears to build on that “biased and racially discriminated” treatment of the tribe that he said has existed for generations. Snider, the sponsor, has not directly commented on the tribe’s concerns about the measure.

The Tribune asked Snider for a comment. In response, Utah House spokesperson Alexa Musselman said: “Tabby Mountain is intentionally exempt from this legislation (lines 74-76), so that conversations can continue.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Casey Snider, R-Paradise, at the Capitol building in Salt Lake City on Friday January 20, 2023.

During the committee hearing, Snider said the bill was spurred by a separate issue two years ago, when the Utah DNR, through the Division of Wildlife Resources, wanted to buy the Cinnamon Creek property located just north of the Cache/Weber County boundary line that the trust administration had put up for sale. State legislators, he said, had to circumvent the typical public approval process to set aside the money quickly enough to make a bid. It ended up being the largest buy in the department’s history at 8,000 acres.

Snider doesn’t want that kind of rushed process to happen again.

But while the tribe still wants the Tabby Mountain land — and is glad that is not included in the land considered under the measure — it’s more concerned about the preference it sees the bill setting up for the future: one that cuts them out and the state in.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve changed the rules to benefit themselves,” Murray alleged; he said he doesn’t feel the measure is appropriate with the ongoing litigation.

He said the bill appears to him like a direct response to the tribe’s lawsuit and Tabby Mountain situation, so the state won’t run into that challenge with a bid again and the DNR will get access to whatever land it wants at a cheaper price.

Under HB262, DNR gets first claim on plots of more than 5,000 acres listed for sale by the trust administration, without an open bid that might drive up the price. Instead, Natural Resources would only be required to pay the price determined by one third-party appraisal of “fair market value,” according to the bill.

HB262 does make some specific areas off limits, including land around the Book Cliffs in eastern Utah, but it would still apply to up to 50,000 acres, estimated Snider, who spoke about the bill in a hearing Wednesday before the Utah House Natural Resources Committee. A representative of the Utah PTA, though, testified that was a low estimate, and it would actually apply to as many as 1.2 million acres within the trust’s management; the parent-teacher group opposes the bill.

Speaking in favor

Michelle McConkie, the director of the Utah Trust Lands Administration, spoke in favor of the measure.

She said the blocks of land covered in HB262 are typically “hard to sell,” and she doesn’t believe they would fetch more going up for bid. The trust administration, she said, also isn’t making a lot of money off of them now with minerals or other shares — maybe a few hundred dollars a year; they are considered “nonperforming.”

She sees the bill as a way for the trust administration to sell off otherwise undesired parcels, especially in areas the public is generally already using for hunting, recreation and grazing, which would remain accessible that way under DNR control.

“We look at this as a win-win,” she said.

She also said she doesn’t believe it will apply to a large number of sales, with the 5,000-acre requirement.

Joel Ferry, the executive director of DNR, also commented during the committee hearing, challenging those calling the setup a “backroom deal” or a “sweetheart deal.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, pictured on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024.

He said, there would be a process moving forward, and the buys would still be public and subject to comment from the public. But he also acknowledged that when it comes to a free market process in a bid for land, DNR “can’t compete” financially and needs the assistance.

Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, said the trust administration has a duty to schoolchildren, but also, as he sees it, to all the best uses of the land. Public access, he argued, is part of that. And he is in favor of the measure.

The Utah Education Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and the Utah Mining Association also joined in voicing support. Snider has previously run similar legislation but not had support from education groups, making that a marked change this year.

He is a noted outdoorsman, though, and a member of the Utah Legislative Sportsmen’s Caucus.

Joining in opposition

Others joined the Ute Tribe in opposition, including the Utah Farm Bureau. Some during the public comment period feared that less money would go to schoolchildren if there’s not a competitive bidding process.

Several state lawmakers on the committee also raised questions of whether the bill cuts a “backdoor deal” for DNR.

Rep. Scott Chew, R-Jensen, who is a rancher and leases trust administration land for grazing, said he is concerned that some past deals with the administration and the state have been “a little underhanded.” He also says the trust administration has sold off land that was more valuable than originally thought.

He recused himself from the vote, citing his conflict with the leases, but said he is troubled.

“This has a little bit of a shadow of two bureaucratic agencies of being able to get together and do a backdoor deal, as it appears,” he said.

Two members of the committee, Reps. Michael Kohler, R-Midway, and Rex Shipp, R-Cedar City, voted against the measure.

The Ute Tribe has been pushing to reclaim its ancestral homelands in recent years, using money the tribe has collected through oil and gas drilling on its reservation to buy land back. Murray said his biggest concern with the measure is that the state is trying to keep those parcels away from the original people in the state who roamed those areas.

The tribe, he said, has a vested spiritual interest in the properties, as well as wanting to protect the land it sees as sacred.

The Utes, for instance, recently suspended all hunting, fishing and recreation permits for nontribal members on its 4.5 million acre Uintah and Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah because Murray said people were trashing the lands, leaving garbage out and riding ATVs over the desert (which is forbidden by the tribe).

He worries if the tribe cannot reclaim some of the places it hopes to, in a fair process, the same will happen to those areas.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rising above the town of Tabiona, Utah’s Tabby Mountain provides scenic big game habitat in the western Uinta Basin, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022.

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