FORT DUCHESNE, Uintah County — A small faction of the Ute Indian Tribe has voted to ask their leaders to stop construction of a $6 million fish hatchery at Big Springs Creek.
During a recent general membership meeting, 99 of the tribe's 3,157 enrolled members voted to shutter the project. Only three people voted to continue construction.
Tribal members, including some spiritual leaders concerned about the effects of construction and future hatchery operations on what they believe to be sacred springs, are calling for mediation with the Ute Tribe Business Committee to reach terms about the future of the project. They have hired attorney Duane Moss to represent their interests.
"We really don't want to litigate this," Moss said.
Based on recent events though, including the forced removal of protesters from the construction site, those opposed to the hatchery have expressed doubt that their voices will be heard. But Business Committee Chairman Curtis R. Cesspooch said he is more than willing to meet with the project's opponents.
"The vote at the meeting has not been forgotten," Cesspooch wrote in an e-mail.
The history of the project is lengthy and complex. It involves myriad state and federal agencies that have worked for more than 12 years with the Business Committee to move the project forward. The lion's share of construction money was allocated from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Construction began in June, however, the building of an intake pipeline to divert water from the creek to the hatchery has been put on hold by a tribal court judge.
It is unclear whether the membership vote earlier this month will carry any weight with the Business Committee, which governs the tribe's affairs.
Opponents allege that tribal members were not made aware of the tribe's $1.5 million commitment for its portion of construction costs, that spiritual leaders were not contacted to review either the draft or the final versions of an environmental assessment, and that the project interferes with religious beliefs and customs. They claim construction crews have already removed pathways, trees and religious relics, including "bundles" that contain personal items of tribal members.
There are also fears that the proposed use of water from Big Springs Creek for the hatchery will eliminate water flow during drought periods.
Cesspooch said the entire tribal membership has had ample opportunity to provide input since the project was first proposed. He also said that when he visited the site before the start of construction, he did not see religious objects or "bundles" near the area that could have been disturbed.
"As far as using up the water from the springs, there is no water that will be consumed," Cesspooch said. "The water will be returned back to the stream once it goes through the fish hatchery."
An environmental assessment, completed in 2007, found that the project would have "no significant impact."
The Ute Tribal Court has ruled that all formal requirements for the project had been met, and on Oct. 12 asked the parties to enter mediation within 30 days. Those discussions have not yet been scheduled.