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Utes gain partial victory in land-jurisdiction fight

SHARE Utes gain partial victory in land-jurisdiction fight

The Ute Indian Tribe has won a partial victory in a decades-old legal battle over jurisdiction of lands within the traditional exterior boundaries of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

In a 49-page opinion that sets out to resolve a long history of conflicting legal opinions and "bring finality" to the issue, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver on Thursday established what the judges themselves characterized as a "checkerboard allocation of jurisdiction."At stake in the litigation was jurisdiction over American Indian trust lands, national forest lands, the mineral-rich Uncompahgre Reservation and millions of acres of non-trust lands within the boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation, including much of Duchesne and Uintah counties and the cities of Roosevelt and Duchesne.

The Utes argued they had jurisdiction over all of the lands within the original boundaries, while the state and local entities said congressional actions from 1902 to 1905 opened parts of the reservation to non-Indians and, therefore, diminished the reservation.

The state and local communities also contended that the congressional actions from 1894 to 1897 had completely disestablished the tribe's Uncompahgre Reservation.

In a ruling with far-reaching ramifications for law enforcement, tax policy and economic development, the three-judge appeals panel said:

- The tribe and the federal government retain jurisdiction over all trust lands, the national forest lands, the Uncompahgre Reservation and three categories of non-trust lands that remain within the boundaries of the Uintah Valley Reservation.

- The state and relevant local governments have jurisdiction over lands removed from the reservation under the 1902-1905 allotment legislation, which would include the settled communities. A title search may be necessary to identify those lands.

"We recognize that while our approach might result in a checkerboard allocation of jurisdiction, such a result is more desirable than the (state's and local government's) approach, which would produce a `moving checkerboard' because lands leaving trust status would also lose their status as Indian country," the judges wrote.

The dispute over jurisdiction arose after the state undertook felony prosecutions against three American Indians for crimes committed in Myton and Roosevelt, which the tribe claimed as "Indian country."

Subsequent rulings by federal and state courts "present a practical dilemma of daily importance," the federal appeals court said in justifying a modification of its own earlier ruling in the matter.

Although the tribe has continued to exercise civil and non-felony criminal jurisdiction on those portions of the Uintah Valley Reservation that were opened to settlement at the turn of the century, the state has continued to prosecute the felony cases. Often, the difference in jurisdiction comes down to a few dollars that separate a misdemeanor from a felony in a theft case, for example