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Uintah Basin oil, gas drilling could be impacted by dispute between counties, Ute Tribe

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 14 2012 9:07 p.m. MST

A long-running dispute between tribal and non-tribal governments over criminal jurisdiction in the Uintah Basin is threatening to throw a wrench into a valuable part of Utah's economic engine.

Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

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FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — A long-running dispute between tribal and non-tribal governments over criminal jurisdiction in the Uintah Basin is threatening to throw a wrench into a valuable part of Utah's economic engine.

Leaders of the Ute Indian Tribe, in a Jan. 30 letter to commissioners in Duchesne and Uintah counties, outlined their plan to begin reviewing all non-tribal business activity taking place on tribal land "to determine whether cause exists for the termination of … leases, business licenses, rights of ways and access permits."

The move comes amid claims by tribal leaders that state, county and city law enforcement officers in the region are engaging in an ongoing pattern of harassment against tribal members.

"We can't take this lying down anymore," Ron Wopsock, vice chairman of the Ute Tribe Business Committee, told the Deseret News on Monday.

"Our people are being hurt and it's uncalled for," he said. 

Much of the oil and natural gas drilling in the Uintah Basin right now is taking place on tribal land. The state, the counties and the tribe all receive severance tax revenues from drilling on federally managed lands. Utah collected $59.8 million in severance tax revenues in the last fiscal year, according to the state Division of Finance. Duchesne County, Uintah County and the Ute Tribe also shared $6.1 million in severance tax revenues during the same period, the division said.

Those revenues could be sharply impacted if non-tribal companies drilling for oil and gas on tribal lands see their leases, permits and licenses revoked. 

The letter from the tribe acknowledges that the review of licenses and permits is connected to the jurisdiction dispute with the counties, something Wopsock confirmed.

"It's important that (Unitah) Basin residents find out what's going on with their elected officials," he said, "before anything gets worse."

But Duchesne and Uintah county officials maintain that law enforcement officers aren't harassing tribal members. Instead, they're abiding by the jurisdictional boundaries established by two federal court rulings, and outlined for them by the U.S. Attorney's Office for Utah less than two years ago.

"In areas that the U.S. attorney have identified to us as not being reservation or Indian Country, we take state jurisdiction," Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Mitchell said. "If they are (reservation or Indian Country), then we contact BIA and let them handle it."

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI have jurisdiction over tribal members who commit most criminal offenses on lands held in trust for Native Americans. They also have jurisdiction over individuals who are not tribal members if they victimize a tribal member on trust land.

Ute tribal leaders say they've cataloged more than two dozen instances of civil rights violations by non-tribal law enforcement in the Uintah Basin, and forwarded them to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. Many of those cases involve allegations that police officers, sheriff's deputies or Utah Highway Patrol troopers have refused to requests by tribal members to have a BIA officer respond to handle their cases.

Mitchell has heard the claims, but said there hasn't been a single formal complaint filed with his office, and no one has provided him with any information that would allow him to open an investigation, despite his repeated requests for that information.

"We want our guys to do their job correctly," the sheriff said. "And if they're not, then we want to be able to train them and deal with what they're doing wrong, if they're doing something wrong."

In 1998, the tribe and the counties signed three agreements that dealt with civil and regulatory authority, law enforcement, and the prosecution of tribal members charged with misdemeanor offenses.

Those agreements expired in 2008, but the parties continued to work together as if they were still in place. In 2011, after months of negotiations, both counties signed the agreements and sent them to the tribe for approval.

The tribe has yet to sign.

"To go through all of that work and see a lot of progress be made, and then to just have it fall out from underneath us, that part does get a little frustrating," said Jonathan Stearmer, chief deputy attorney for the civil division of the Uintah County Attorney's Office.

"We would like to see the agreements executed by the tribe and let's move forward and be happy citizens in the basin," Stearmer said.

While he said he can't provide legal advice to non-tribal business owners in the wake of the latest announcement by the tribe, Stearmer noted there is case law that clearly defines what limited authority tribal governments can exercise over non-tribal businesses operating in Indian Country.

In spite of that, tribal leaders say they'll push ahead with their license and permit review.

"While we do not want the individual non-members that do business with the tribe in good faith to be affected or injured by this problem, the decisions of their elected leaders have put the tribe in the difficult position to take this action," Ute Tribe Business Committee member Stewart Pike said.

Ute leaders may also file a civil suit in federal court against the counties to try to put an end to the alleged harassment of tribal members, or take other unspecified action. 

"There's a lot of things we can do," Wopsock said. "This tribe is very powerful."

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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