High Country News on the Southern Ute Tribe and Natural Resources

Here is the link to this article, “The Ute Paradox.”

A few excerpts:

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Less than a century ago, the Southern Utes were barely hanging on, squeezed onto an unremarkable sliver of reservation land, a new and foreign way of life thrust upon them. Even as late as the 1950s, many had no running water or noticeable income. But today, as the bidding at the Superdome showed, the once-impoverished tribe is a financial powerhouse. With tribal businesses in 14 states, ranging from Gulf crude to upscale San Diego real estate, the 1,400 or so tribal members are, collectively, worth billions.

They didn’t strike it rich on casino gambling. Instead, the Southern Utes built their empire slowly, over decades, primarily by taking control of the vast coalbed methane and natural gas deposits that lie under their land. They’ve achieved cultural, environmental and economic self-determination through energy self-determination — a feat rarely accomplished, whether by Indians or non-Indians.

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From this nerve center, the tribe’s energy arm has reached into at least eight other states. The real estate arm owns or invests in developments and buildings in Denver and its suburbs, the San Diego suburb of Oceanside, as well as Kansas City, Houston and Albuquerque. The tribe’s GF Private Equity portfolio — for which the tribe is reportedly seeking a buyer, so that it can concentrate more on oil and gas — includes biotech ventures and defense contractors. Closer to home, the tribe is developing Three Springs, a “new urban” community between the reservation boundary and Durango. To help launch it, the tribe donated land for a new Durango hospital, to serve as an anchor for as many as 2,200 new residential units. The tribe’s net worth now stands at somewhere between $3.5 billion and $14 billion.

The tribe also has its own environmental standards, which are as strong as or stronger than state or federal regulations, and it is on the brink of getting federal approval for its sovereign air quality code. The first of its kind in the U.S., the code will empower the Southern Utes to tighten air-quality standards and administer permits under the federal Clean Air Act. The tribe has put parts of the reservation off-limits to all drilling, and it’s partnered with Solix Biofuels to create an algae-to-biofuel facility on the reservation. It took control of the tribal medical clinic in order to improve care, built a state-of-the-art recreation center, and has a groundbreaking Ute language program in its school. The Southern Ute Community Action Program runs alcohol and substance abuse treatment centers, a senior center, and job-training programs. Every member has the option of accepting a full college scholarship from the tribe. And the Southern Utes continue to follow older traditions such as the Bear and Sun Dances, which draw huge crowds each summer.

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Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law Center at Michigan State University, says the tribal companies remain unique: Their money goes through the government, while a private corporation’s goes to profit-hungry stockholders. “The perception I’m trying to avoid is that the tribes are any old private enterprise and for-profit machine,” says Fletcher. The Southern Ute financial empire is not a corporation; it’s a government.

That’s an important distinction for a number of reasons. The first has to do with tribal sovereignty and sovereign immunity from lawsuits filed by critics and possible victims. If the Utes’ many companies are considered corporate rather than governmental, they are less likely to be imbued with the tribe’s sovereignty. Though the tribe waives its immunity on a limited basis in order to enter into contracts with other businesses, it’s not about to let its sovereignty be weakened. It’s a tricky area: In 2005, the state of Colorado went after a payday loan organization in response to consumer complaints. The company, which was owned by Oklahoma tribes, tried to avoid prosecution by invoking sovereign immunity; the case is still in the courts. It raises the uncomfortable question of how sovereign immunity might play out if, say, one of Red Willow’s offshore rigs were to explode and leak oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

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The Southern Utes — along with the Council of Energy Resource Tribes as a whole — gave explicit support to the Ruby Pipeline, a 675-mile El Paso Energy project that will stretch from Wyoming to Oregon. That’s despite the fact that environmentalists say the pipeline will destroy sage grouse habitat, and that several Nevada tribes — particularly the Summit Lake Paiutes — oppose it, saying it will wreck lands that are sacred to them. The project will open up more markets to natural gas producers in the Interior West, making it appealing to energy-producing tribes. It received federal approval in April.

Still, Sarah Krakoff, a University of Colorado professor who specializes in Indian law and has written about the nexus of environmental justice and tribal sovereignty, warns against going too far with the comparison to conventional corporations. “If we were moving toward the day that we could critique Indian governments the same way that we critique other entities, that would be a good thing. It would mean we’ve removed some barriers to equality,” she says. But we’re really not there yet, despite the Southern Ute success. “Our history makes things very complicated in this country.”

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This entry was posted in Author: Matthew L.M. Fletcher, economic development, Environmental, News, sovereign immunity, taxation and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to High Country News on the Southern Ute Tribe and Natural Resources

  1. Matthew: Thank you for linking to my story, and thanks even more for talking to me for the story. For those of you who want even MORE context than the High Country News story provided, I’ve also posted the unedited, footnoted version, with a little more context from you (Mr. Fletcher). Feel free to check it out here:


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