La Plata County, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs have signed a historic agreement granting the county right-of-way to all roads on tribal land, covering 75 miles of roads and approximately 515 acres.
The agreement between the three entities was signed on April 9.
The county will pay the tribe $180,882 for the right of way. It will be paid through an offset over two years from the amount the tribe pays to the county under the state tax compact. The agreement represents years of work between the entities, said Julie Westendorff, who chairs the county commission.
"This is a model document," she said, that benefits both Indians and non-Indians.
The rights-of-way on tribal land have been an issue since 1949. County maps from 1883 were displayed at the April 9 signing, showing roads from the Animas River to the state line with New Mexico.
The agreement represents work by 15 to 20 people in the bureau, said John Waconda, the superintendent of the Southern Ute Agency for the BIA. While an agreement like this might not work with other tribes and federal agencies, it is a good fit for this area, he said.
"We're hoping to apply this as a new way of doing things here," he said. While the time may come for the BIA to hand over all of its jurisdiction to the tribes it currently helps oversee, the bureau currently has to abide federal law and keep an eye on Indian trust lands, he said.
James Olguin, the acting chairman for the tribe, said the agreement is a blueprint for tribal agreements in the future. Current and former tribal council members who had worked on the issue attended the signing.
Under the agreement, the county will maintain the roads. Any third parties wanting to put in a utility will have to get tribal and BIA approvals for an easement. The tribe will not need permits for installing utilities in the right of way, but will consult with the county for safety reasons
After the historic signing, the officials and employees enjoyed a "road cake," made from cupcakes and dark grey frosting, complete with county road signs and signs indicating the boundaries of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.