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Article published Apr 9, 2014

County, Southern Utes sign historic road agreement

Pact ends long history of disputes
Photo by: JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorf, James M. Olguin, interim Tribal Council chairman, center, and John Waconda, Bureau of Indian Affairs Southern Ute Agency superintendent, sign a global road agreement Wednesday at Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio. The agreement has been in the works for more than 15 years.

By Sarah Mueller Herald staff writer

A historic moment.

La Plata County commissioners and leaders of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe signed a global road agreement Wednesday morning, something that has eluded both for at least 16 years.

A celebratory atmosphere filled the Bonny Kent Room at the Sky Ute Casino as tribal members and county officials gathered. A map book more than 100 years old sat displayed on one table, so fragile that attendees needed special gloves to handle it. A cake made from chocolate cupcakes resembling a road sat on another table.

The compromise brings a long-standing dispute to a close, said Interim Tribal Council Chairman James Olguin.

“We may be the first tribe and county, working along with the Bureau (of Indian Affairs) to actually have a global right of way in Indian Country,” Olguin said. “So, historically, we’re setting the path for other entities to really work together to benefit the citizens.”

The BIA also signed the agreement.

It grants the county and its residents the right to pass through sovereign tribal land on roads maintained and identified as county roads. The agreement covers 75 miles of right of way on about 515 acres of tribal land.

The county will have the power to regulate traffic, overweight vehicles and speed limits. The tribe retained civil control of the affected tribal land and will receive payment from the county for past land use, offset by taxes the tribe owes to the county under a taxation compact between the tribe, the county and the state of Colorado.

Former Tribal Council Chairman Howard Richards Sr. was the youngest member of the Tribal Council in 1991. He said he’s waited for this moment for more than 20 years.

“I’ve seen a lot of change,” Richards said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress between the county (and the tribe), not only regarding the right-of-way issue, but others that we need to stay upon.”

Although the first documented dispute between the La Plata County commissioners and the tribe on legal passage over tribal land was in 1949, the issue dates back to the 1880s. County and tribal leaders fought for decades over ownership, sovereignty and rights.

While county staff started researching 37 specific roads in 1996, the two sides soon embarked on a decade where the stance was to agree to disagree.

“Sixteen years seems like a long time, but when you think about it, it really isn’t,” County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said. “Our 16 years in time is just a brief moment in this issue.”

Rogers said the process of creating the agreement allowed her to learn more about her community and strings of road that bind everyone together.

Before 2008, the approach was road-by-road, said Tribal Attorney Sam W. Maynes. An attempt to draft a global agreement between 2010 and 2012 failed.

“You all persevered, and this agreement today shows that the county and the tribe can solve what are some difficult issues, what is a difficult issue, through communication on a government-to-government basis with mutual respect,” Maynes said. “Everyone can really be proud of that. As good neighbors, this agreement has been forged.”

Commissioner Julie Westendorff said it was good to be there representing La Plata County.

“In an era when many counties are in conflict with the tribes that they share the land with, I’m very proud that in Southwest Colorado, La Plata County and Southern Ute Indian Tribe have good relations,” she said. “Clearly, this agreement is a reflection of that.”

Photo by: JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
A cupcake cake depicting a road helped tribal and county officials celebrate the signing of the global road agreement Wednesday at the Sky Ute Casino in Ignacio.