The Southern Ute Tribal Council and Durango City Council met for the first time in three years this week, coming away with a good-faith agreement that they will meet quarterly from now on.
The meeting, which was also attended by tribal and city staff members, began Monday with a full-court press by tribal council members voicing their displeasure at the lack of communication and consultation by Durango officials despite the tribe’s economic contributions across the region.
Tribal Chairman Melvin Baker said the tribe has been forgotten and not consulted despite being the biggest employer in the area along with the biggest benefactor of the hospital, airport and Three Springs housing development.
“But we have not been invited to discussions about development ... and have felt unwelcome at meetings of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance,” Baker said.
The tribe was also not invited to a Feb. 23 chamber of commerce meeting attended by La Plata County, Durango, Bayfield and Ignacio officials to discuss housing in the community, he added.
“And no mention was made of the fact that the tribe has invested over $100 million in housing development in Three Springs and constructed the largest residential community in the area with almost 700 living units, and is poised to begin phase II with another 1,300 living units,” Baker said. “And these are just examples.”
Another example was a September 2022 article in The Durango Herald indicating the city was undertaking a feasibility study to consider using water from Lake Nighthorse, which would involve building infrastructure.
“But the lake is surrounded by cultural resources important to the tribe, and the vast majority of water in Lake Nighthorse belongs to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain tribes,” Baker said. “The city’s water interests in Lake Nighthorse are small, yet the first the tribes heard about this was in the local paper. No one from the city reached out to the tribe.
“The tribe is a key part of this community and has invested more than any other governmental entity in its success (and) needs a seat at the table in all discussions moving forward,” he said. “How do we ensure that it is not forgotten in future discussions?”
Durango Mayor Barbara Noseworthy responded with a mea culpa.
“First of all, you are right,” she said. “The tribe has not been involved as it should be. So let me acknowledge that and apologize for that. You are a neighbor and a good neighbor at that. And I will personally say that Three Springs and the tribe’s effort was actually like corporate responsibility. It was more an act of philanthropy in my mind to bring that many homes into our communities.
“So I do want to acknowledge that what you said is that we have not done the work of being partners,” she said. “And so I think this is a starting point. I’m hopeful for a good discussion of ways to engage on a regular basis.”
Baker continued to enumerate the ways in which the tribe has not been consulted or included by Durango officials in particular and noted that if any projects run into stoppage issues or setbacks, it would be on Durango officials and not the tribe.
Another Tribal Council member asked simply: Why hasn’t Durango City Council reached out?
Noseworthy answered by reflecting on the last time the two councils met, which was for dinner in February 2020.
“And then with COVID I think everything just kind of went by the wayside in that regard with all of us just being concerned with well-being,” she said. “You know, I guess the only thing I can say is, um, it’s just not top of mind. And that’s not an excuse, it’s not acceptable.
“It’s just not top of mind. And I think that part of that is the sense of ... we talked about getting back together and having other meetings after that February one and then nothing seemed to happen and I think that’s probably it, it’s inexcusable, but that is the case,” she said.
Tribal Council member Marge Barry summed up the sentiment before the conversation moved on to brass tacks issues involving the Three Springs and La Posta Road developments, annexation of reservation land, and water issues.
“We just want to be included because we’ve been, for so many years, left outside looking in and yet we have a huge stake in this community and in this country,” Barry said.
Tribal Council members went on to make clear they want to see development of Three Springs move toward completion before energy is shifted to the La Posta development, which includes for the first time annexing reservation land into Durango city limits – a move that will call for additional collaboration. Water rights and the sacred relationship the tribe has with water will also be issues to be addressed and respected.
As the meeting ran its course, Durango City Council members and city staff members listened for the most part, with some back and forth discussion over particulars concerning the aforementioned developments and water issues. All agreed to make sure staff members stay in contact and that consultations occur as projects move forward and issues arise.