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Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Clifford Duncan leads the Grand Entry during the 38th Northern Ute Powwow in July in Fort Duchesne. The tribe handed out checks totaling $6.3 million to its members, three times as much as 2005.

FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — The Ute Indian Tribe nearly went broke four years ago. The summer of that year, it had only enough money to run the tribal government and its many social programs for one month.

Today, the tribe is prospering.

At its annual Northern Ute Powwow on July 4, the tribe handed out checks totaling $6.3 million to its members, three times as much as was distributed the previous year.

There are several other noteworthy benchmarks of success since 2002.

• Since then, tribal coffers have swelled enough to double the number of members employed by the tribe. About 600 now have jobs.

• The tribe now has a flourishing retirement fund for its elders.

• Its worth has swelled tenfold to more than $100 million, not including several hundred million in water settlement rights.

• The tribe has increased the amount directed to college scholarships and vocational training from $200,000 to $300,000 since 2002.

• The tribe started its own oil company, Ute Energy. It has 60 producing wells and plans to drill 128 more, making it the fourth-largest producer in the Uintah Basin.

• The tribe will invest $80 million in exploration in 2007.

• The tribe's $24 million annual budget rivals the combined budgets of Duchesne and Uintah counties combined. "I don't think people realize the economic impact the tribe has on the state," says Cameron Cuch, a Ute Energy analyst. "We drive the economy off the Wasatch Front."

"There has been a tremendous change," says Ute chairwoman Maxine Natchees. "Without doing something, we would have had to close down the government."

Success story

The past four years have amounted to a Cinderella story for the Utes. Before that, years of inattention and bad deals nearly led to disaster for the 3,100-member tribe.

"They were just not on top of their expenses and revenues," says Forrest Cuch, a Ute who heads the Utah Office of Indian Affairs. "They just had no idea what their obligations were, and it caught up with them."

Enter John Jurrius, a polished Texan whom the tribe hired away from the Southern Utes in Colorado after he made them one of richest Indian nations in the country.

"He stretched some of his own finances to pull them out of that," Forrest Cuch said. "He's a true American. I really mean that."

Jurrius doesn't consider himself a savior. He says he's just an investment banker preaching simple math.

Traditionally, tribal services like health care are provided through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs — each tribe gets a chunk of money from the government. But in the Utes' case, that amount did not cover costs.

Because the tribe has no tax base, it had to sell off resources to pay for ongoing services. It's not unlike federal mandates to the states that come without money to administer them.

"The business model for sovereign nations has been the federal government," Jurrius said. "That's an equation to go broke."

So the tribal council agreed to change the way it does business.

One of the first steps was to find out exactly what the tribe's resources were, and when the tribe asked Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, they didn't know.

So the tribe spent months on an excruciatingly detailed inventory of every well, every site where oil or gas had been discovered. It also scrutinized records and found many cases where companies were out of compliance with agreements and few cases where market rate has been paid to the tribe in a transaction, said Cameron Cuch.

The turnaround

Maps cover the walls in the boardroom at Ute Energy offices on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation.

The maps include details not found on any state document. These maps are the results of months of research on the tribe's 1.2 million surface acres.

Every well, every gas and oil field, every mineral reserve. Every piece of equipment, every road right of way. Every resource is plotted, managed, cultivated and projected.

A state-of-the-art computer system holds detailed descriptions of the contract, work and potential for every acre.

Jurrius also developed a financial plan, which required approval from the entire tribe. Early on, the tribe voted to restructure itself. It approved the financial plan and agreed to form a business committee that would work closely with Jurrius and his group.

"It was a huge transition," Natchees said.

The tribe set up a venture fund to allow it to invest in bigger projects — even commercial developments.

More than a business model, Jurrius has preached a philosophy of self-respect. In the past three years he has taught tribal leaders how to ask more for their resources and how to negotiate tougher.

It is the difference between passive and active governance.

"In our view, this is the ultimate sovereignty we can have," said Cameron Cuch.

The Ute Tribe sits on the vast Uintah and Ouray Reservation, originally spread across 4.5 million acres in eastern Utah. The tribe maintains hunting and fishing and other rights over that original area, which makes up 8.5 percent of the state.

Oil and gas, tar sands and oil shale are abundant beneath the sage brush-covered landscape of Duchesne and Uintah counties.

"When I left high school, I probably couldn't spell Indian. When I left college, I probably couldn't point to a reservation," Jurrius said.

Jurrius studied accounting and finance at Angelo State University but did not graduate. He worked for and started several energy companies before the Southern Utes hired him as a financial consultant in 1997. The past decade he has worked almost exclusively with tribes, including the Jicarilla Apache Nation in New Mexico. He left the Southern Utes with $1.5 billion in assets and as the only tribe in the nation with a AAA bond rating.

Under Jurrius, that tribe's net income swelled from $7 million in 1990 to $500 million in 2001 through investments in oil and gas leases, real estate and construction. Employees in the tribe's numerous business ventures climbed to 2,000. That wealth, now approaching $2 billion, trickles down to the tribe's 1,300 members.

Each Southern Ute over age 60 gets $60,000 a year; members 22 to 59 get a percentage of tribal profits up to $30,000. College scholarships start at $10,000 per student.

The tribe donated the land for a new hospital in Durango and is building a $75 million conference center in the Four Corners area.

The 'sheriff'

Paid $62,500 a month to be the Utes' financial adviser, Jurrius comes with a high price tag. But his assertive financial plan has turned the tribe around.

"It's money well spent. For any good financial advising, you have to pay for it," said Cameron Cuch. "Before he came, we were losing money left and right. People were capitalizing left and right on our confusion."

Without the Jurrius plan, says Ute chairwoman Natchees, tribal government would have closed down.

"We just couldn't maintain," she said.

Natchees says her vision for the tribe is to follow the financial plan and gain financial stability and sufficiency. The tribe is well on its way, Natchees said. "The most difficult thing is that some people don't fully understand where we are."

And not all tribal members see Jurrius in glowing terms. Controversy surrounding his financial vision continues to pick at the tribe.

The membership has approved the plan with a tribal ordinance — which makes it the law of the land. The tribal council is obliged to follow through with the plan.

Natchees, who stands firmly with Jurrius, has been the subject of at least three recall petitions. She is in her first four-year term as chairwoman.

"We have found a very friendly partner in the tribe," said Mike McKee, a Uintah County commissioner. "The tribe is a treasure chest of wealth."

McKee is one of many who recognize that Jurrius certainly has clout when it comes to furthering the tribe's interests.

Jurrius used contacts at the Department of the Interior to get a cooperative BIA superintendent transferred to Utah. This month he and some of his employees were in Washington, D.C., lobbying for a new energy bill.

Jurrius likens himself to an Old West gunslinger hired to clean up the town.

"I'm the economic sheriff," he said. "They have me to make all these changes and take all the bullets and the criticism."

Awakening giant

Jurrius turned the tribe's old way of doing business on its ear. Rather than passively collecting royalty checks from the 20 oil and gas companies operating on the reservation, it took an active role in renegotiating contracts more to its favor.

"The sleeping giant woke up," Jurrius said.

The awakening jolted the oil companies on the reservation. They didn't like the new, assertive Ute tribe. They were not only upset but nervous.

Now all but two work with the tribe. One of those that declined, Denver-based Miller, Dyer & Co., has newfound respect for the Utes.

"Don't blame the industry for not immediately accepting the tribe as a new partner; they really prefer the old, easy to get along with (tribe)," John E. Dyer and Kyle R. Miller wrote in a letter to the Utes.

They described Jurrius as a "fierce competitor" and "loyal advocate for the tribe."

Under new agreements, oil producers are obligated to drill on the land they lease or face hefty fines or even lose the lease. The tribe probes the ground for potential productivity before marketing a site. In the past three years, it has leased 300,000 new acres.

Each oil rig employs 60 to 80 people, from geologists to pipe layers to construction workers.

Jurrius was dumbfounded when he arrived to find the Utes earning less than 1 percent on their investments.

Though the tribe had more than several hundred million in federal water settlement funds, it wasn't making use of the money. Jurrius, over the objections of several tribal leaders, obtained permission to withdraw $190 million for investment.

Cameron Cuch says the tribe will continue to move forward into the black.

"If you look at the history of our people, we've lost a lot," he said. "We are trying to provide for today but also for future generations. That's why this plan has been established, and that's why it's working."

Today: New thinking energizes tribal economies

Monday: Poor people, rich lands

Tuesday: Tradition vs. progress?

Wednesday: Thinking outside the box

Thursday: Spanning two worlds

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com; lucy@desnews.com