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Money made, money lost?

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

Members of the Southwest Conservation Corps, a nonprofit that works on local land-conservation projects, unload gear into one of the historic buildings on the old Fort Lewis College campus near Hesperus. The conservation corps is one of many groups that have used the historic campus through the years. Some critics argue the land could have been better used to generate more revenue for an endowment fund created to support the tuition waiver at FLC.

By Emery Cowan
Herald Staff Writer

Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series about the Native American tuition waiver at Fort Lewis College.

More than 50 years since Fort Lewis College moved to Durango from its home on the Fort Lewis Mesa, the college has a newfound responsibility to shape the future of its former campus.

The Old Fort property, a 6,279-acre tract south of Hesperus, is the most tangible connection to the historic agreement that established Fort Lewis and the Native American tuition waiver that defines the college. In 1911, the federal government granted the land to Colorado in exchange for the state's promise to maintain the property as an institution of learning with free tuition, or a tuition waiver, offered to all Native American students.

After the college moved from the property to Durango in 1956, Colorado State University began operating an agriculture experiment station and bull-testing facility there.

But in 2010, CSU abruptly pulled out of its lease because of financial difficulties. The college unexpectedly found itself tasked with vetting new proposals for the land, establishing partnerships with the Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, which holds the land in trust, and trying to create a vision for the land.

As the college delves into this work, it has confronted a host of unresolved issues, missteps and decisions that critics argue have helped put the tuition waiver on unstable financial ground. Better management of the land would have generated more revenue that could have been used to support the tuition waiver, relieving the state of at least some of the waiver's financial burden, students, professors and tribal members said. The waiver costs the state about $13 million annually.

Free rent stirs controversy

The Old Fort campus sits amidst acres of grassland, shrubs and piņon pine that unfurl from the base of the La Plata Mountains. After Colorado accepted the land, the state established a high school to replace the Native American boarding school. The high school began to evolve into a junior college in 1927.

Before the college moved from the Hesperus property, state legislators established an endowment fund to collect money made from rental payment, royalties and mineral leases on the land. Almost 30 years later, in 1963, the Legislature directed that money to be used to support the tuition waiver at Fort Lewis College. The Colorado State Board of Land Commissioners, which holds the land in trust, manages and collects revenue from those leases and funnels it to FLC to be deposited into the fund.

After the college moved to Durango, the state land board leased the property to Colorado State University and stopped charging the university rent about a decade after. The reasoning went that CSU was using the land in line with its designated purpose at the time and was the beneficiary of the trust because it was then the governing body over Fort Lewis College.

When Fort Lewis split from the state university in 2002, the university's zero-dollar per year lease on the land was extended until 2017. The agriculture experiment station served a public purpose, and it was important that CSU continue that work, said Steve Schwartz, FLC's vice president for finance and administration.

The $0 per year lease is most loudly criticized by members of the Buffalo Council, a student group that has taken issue with the state's management of the land. The group argues that the free lease agreement deprives the endowment fund of money that should support the tuition waiver. Native Americans get blamed when financial difficulties with the tuition waiver arise, when that blame should really fall to the state's mismanagement, said Pat Kincaid, spokesman for the Buffalo Council.

Other nearby residents said the agreement was problematic because CSU's agricultural experiment station doesn't align with the land's original educational purpose. The group also argues that the college should further investigate the possibility that mining occurred underneath the Old Fort property. The group points to fragments of evidence, such as leases for coal and gas exploration on the land and historical documents highlighting its rich mineral resources, as reason for the college to dig deeper. A financial audit could reveal undiscovered revenue that should be reimbursed to the tuition waiver, the group's members said.

The state land board granted at least 11 leases for natural-gas and coal mining, but production on the land never occurred, said Tobin Follenweider, deputy director of the State Land Board, which holds the Old Fort land in trust for the college. Neither the state land board nor CSU has records of revenue generated from mineral leases.

From the college's perspective, the Buffalo Council's arguments lack enough evidence for the college to consider performing an audit on the land's financial history, Schwartz said.

“It has to be more than just speculation and conspiracy theories,” he said. In an age of shrinking budgets the college also lacks extra resources to devote to the Old Fort and extra investigations, he said.

Elk research

The Buffalo Council, nearby landowners and educators also take issue with the Elk Research Institute, a current lessee on the land. The nonprofit has leased about 1,500 acres on the Hesperus land, also rent-free, since 2003. CSU agreed to the lease because the university saw potential in the organization's work developing elk that show resistance to chronic wasting disease. But after eight years, critics point to a lack of research from the endeavor, which was expected in exchange for the lease terms, said Beth LaShell, the Old Fort coordinator, who started working on the property in 1990 under CSU.

Buffalo Council members, nearby landowners and FLC educators also are skeptical about paid elk hunts the institute runs as part of its operation. The guided hunts, which happen inside the institute's fenced property, cost between $9,900 and $24,900. Profits from the hunts and other activities on the land go back to the nonprofit, Elk Research Institute director Barry Dyar said. The hunts keep numbers in check, he said.

Critics, including nearby landowners and state officials, compared the nonprofit's operations to those of a confined hunting preserve. They said the elk hunts don't fit with the land's educational purposes and that part of the profits from the hunts should go back to the tuition waiver endowment fund. The nonprofit is in talks to work out a more “beneficial” arrangement for the endowment fund, Dyar said.

When CSU backed out of its lease in 2010, the state land board negotiated a $3,000 per-year grazing lease. That amount was at least a small remedy for the rent-free lease the Elk Research Institute had before, said Follenweider, of the State Land Board.

“We got something out of somebody that wasn't paying anything and hadn't paid anything for a long time,” he told a group of community members in Breen last year. “We're trying to make a better situation out of a bad situation.”

College administrators said they doubt whether charging entities such as CSU or ERI to lease the land would have made much of a dent in the $13 million annual cost of the waiver. It doesn't seem realistic to think that any activity, even a casino, would generate enough money on the land to cover the tuition waiver, Schwartz said.

But even if the land never generated massive amounts of revenue, the state should have thought ahead to invest what money was made on the land, Vicenti said.

“If (the state) knew there was potential the waiver would grow over decades, (it) should have invested it into a trust,” he said.

Vicenti also supported a further investigation of past uses of the land.

“Part of it is the clarity that can be brought to the history of this institution. The other part is selecting a moral course that is mindful of the needs and wants of the native people,” he said. “We have been so regularly ignored and disempowered, bringing some kind of closure to that would be a good thing. Our whole history benefits from the pursuit of truth.”

ecowan@durangoherald.com

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