Ute Tribe goes to court to get Tabby Mountain

Utah’s Tabby Mountain was once part of the Uintah Valley Reservation, but it was cleared along with a million other acres more than a century ago when the federal government set aside the forested preserve that became Ashley National Forest in the Uinta Mountains.

As fate would have it, the Ute Indian tribe’s chance to return the landscape to the herd presented itself in 2018 when a later tabby owner, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Land Administration, or SITLA, solicited sealed bids for the 28,500-acre block .

But SITLA conspired with other state agencies to concoct a fraudulent pretext to reject the tribe’s hefty $47 million bid and illegally trick the tribe into taking control of the landscape on the western edge of the Uinta Basin recovered, according to a US District Court lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City on Friday.

“Because of the tribe’s unique and specific interests in Tabby Mountain, financial damages here are also inappropriate,” the lawsuit states. “Tabby Mountain and the plants, natural resources, springs and medicines found on this property have unique religious and spiritual significance to the tribe and its members.”

Tribal officials are seeking a court order directing SITLA to sell Tabby to the 3,000-strong tribe for $47 million and pay punitive damages.

The 28-page lawsuit reads like a harsh indictment of the state’s handling of the tabby sale, which alleges illegal discrimination based on religion, race, national origin and ethnicity in violation of the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law .

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The tribe alleges state officials rigged the sale process to ensure the land would be sold to the Utah Department of Natural Resources (DNR), which hopes to one day protect the land as a nature reserve, state forest and big game hunting sanctuary. The tribe’s $47 million bid scuttled DNR’s plans and sparked backroom plans to end the sales processes rather than allow it to be sold to Native Americans, the lawsuit alleges.

“Nothing is more flagrantly anti-racial than the intentional, purposeful and/or knowing diversion of land from a minority population for the purpose of making that land available for the primary or exclusive benefit of the non-minority population,” the lawsuit reads. It is an undeniable fact of American history that non-Native American greed for land and resources has been the motivation for almost all, if not all, of the racial cleansing and genocidal campaigns waged by non-Native Americans in the United States against Native Americans have population in the United States.”

SITLA’s move not only discriminated against the tribe, but violated the agency’s mission to generate revenue from its 3.4 million-acre portfolio of school escrow land, the lawsuit says.

Agency officials were not immediately available for comment, but they previously said that halting the tabby sale was in the best interests of the trustee lands’ beneficiaries, as the sales process was deeply flawed and needed to be overhauled. However, after more than four years, the process still has to be restarted.

It was not public knowledge that the tribe’s bid for Tabby exceeded DNR’s $41 million bid until last year when a former SITLA employee filed a whistleblower complaint with Utah State Examiner John Dougall.

Whistleblower Tim Donaldson was the official lead for Tabby’s sales process in 2018-19. His complaint alleges that top officials at SITLA were pressured by the Utah legislature to rig the sale process to ensure DNR would be the winning bidder. Those lawmakers, which included House Majority Leader Mike Schultz, threatened to pass legislation that would limit SITLA’s independence if Tabby were sold to the tribe, Donaldson’s complaint claimed.

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SITLA’s land sale procedures, based on sealed bids, are carefully structured to ensure the agency obtains the highest possible price for escrow land it wishes to sell. In the Tabby case, the agency bent its own rules to the detriment of Utah schools, whose trust fund would raise millions if the sale went through, the lawsuit alleges.

In addition to SITLA, the lawsuit names various state officials, including former and current SITLA directors David Ure and Michelle McConkie, former DNR director Mike Styler and Gov. Spencer Cox.

In the many years that Styler ran DNR, he had attempted to acquire Tabby to manage as a wildlife sanctuary, state forest and big game hunting sanctuary. SITLA, whose job it is to manage trust land to generate income for schools, also wanted to sell the land because it had never made much money from it outside of grazing fees.

Styler and other officials have long been concerned about the possibility of wealthy individuals paying a hefty dollar to acquire Tabby and fence off one of Utah’s most prized hunting grounds. For more than a decade, DNR Brass sought a negotiated sale, but SITLA chose to solicit sealed bids in accordance with its normal process.

In 2018, the agency commissioned Highland Commercial to appraise the property and draw up a marketing plan. The company’s confidential appraisal put the market value at between US$25 million and US$37 million and recommended a list price of US$40 million with a marketing period of 24 months, according to the lawsuit.

SITLA ended up using a tight timeframe that made it difficult for private buyers to work with. Although there was great interest in the property, only two bids were received, one from the state and one from the tribe, who had the money to buy it.

When SITLA discovered that the tribe’s bid exceeded DNR’s by $6 million, it pressured DNR to respond with a counter-offer of $50 million, knowing that the state agency did not have the financial resources, according to the lawsuit to complete such a deal.

The mountain in western Duchesne County is named for the Ute chief Tabby-To-Kwanah, who led the Native Americans in the valleys of Utah and Heber at the time of Mormon settlement in the 1850s. It was incorporated into the Uintah Valley Reservation established by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 as a home for various groups of Ute Indians displaced from their ancestral lands elsewhere in Colorado and Utah.

However, the Utes lost Tabby when the land was incorporated into a federal forest reserve created by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century when he opened tribal lands in the Uinta Basin to settlement. To add insult to injury, the US Forest Service gave the land to SITLA’s predecessor agency in exchange for trust land elsewhere in the 1960s without consulting the tribe, the lawsuit says.

However, some of the rights to the minerals at Tabby remain with the tribe to this day.

Today the country is a largely undeveloped habitat teeming with big game. This land could potentially fetch a massive price from wealthy private parties wishing to construct an exclusive ski jump in a beautiful natural setting.

The time for Utah state officials to get a good deal on the land is probably already over, unless lawmakers change the structure of SITLA to ensure the state gets first refusal when escrow properties are for sale.

Since the pandemic, land values ​​in Utah have skyrocketed, making lands like Tabby even more costly and potentially unattainable for public acquisition.

This is an evolving story and will be updated.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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