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County, tribe explore common ground

By Emery Cowan Herald staff writer

IGNACIO – The current La Plata County commissioners on Friday had their first official meeting with the Southern Ute Tribal Council in what both governments welcomed as an opportunity to build communication and cooperation.

The diplomatic meeting was a first for Commissioner Bobby Lieb and his newly elected counterparts Gwen Lachelt and Julie Westendorff.

Lieb noted that the event was a nice change of pace in that it was born out of mutual goodwill rather than an urgent sense of crisis needing to be resolved.

The range of topics discussed – roads agreements, air-quality monitoring, firefighting, federal courts – underscores the many ways the two governments’ workings intersect and overlap.

Perhaps the most immediate and obvious example is a global right of way agreement being crafted by county and tribal attorneys.

The document will resolve disagreements around county road maintenance, access and right-of-way acquisitions that date back more than six decades, La Plata County Attorney Sheryl Rogers said.

Historically, the tribe and the county have butted heads about whether the county followed the correct legal procedure to gain the right-of-way access when constructing roads through the reservation.

The new agreement, which attorneys are hopeful will be completed before the end of this year, would give the county the right-of-way access on county roads where they cross tribal trust land. Up to now, access had to be researched and negotiated before the county did any type of maintenance or road construction.

The agreement may well be the first of its kind in Indian Country, said Lorelyn Hall, a tribal attorney. Tribal council members applauded the agreement as a pioneering move that could become a model for similar work between other tribes and counties in the future.

Air permitting is another area where the tribe is making groundbreaking strides. In March 2012, the tribe became the first in the nation to run its own Clean Air Act program.

The program, which took more than a decade to create, allows the tribe to permit and regulate major sources of emissions within the reservation’s exterior boundaries.

The tribe is in the process of drafting a similar program to regulate minor emissions sources like gas and oil wells.

From the county’s side, Lieb spoke about the winding journey to move a federal courtroom and associated offices to the county courthouse in downtown Durango. The county has made several about-faces on the issue but expects to finalize a long-term lease with U.S. General Services by the end of the year, Lieb said.

Expanded services in Durango will benefit tribal members who have to appear in federal court and allow for a jury that is more representative of the community where tribal members live, Westendorff said.

At the end of the meeting, both county and tribal leaders agreed on the need to meet on a more regular schedule and take a proactive approach to dealing with issues that face both governments.


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