Ute Mountain Ute included in tribal trust settlement

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is one of 41 tribes that will collect in a $1 billion settlement in a tribal trust accounting and management lawsuit, according to a written release from the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Wednesday the settlement of lawsuits filed by 41 federally-recognized tribes against the United States, in which the tribes alleged that the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Treasury had mismanaged monetary assets and natural resources held in trust by the United States for the benefit of the tribes. The announcement followed a 22-month-long negotiation between the tribes and the United States.

These settlements resolve claims dating back more than 100 years and will bring to an end protracted litigation that has burdened both the plaintiffs and the United States.

The Department of the Interior manages almost 56 million acres of trust lands for federally-recognized tribes and more than 100,000 leases on those lands for various uses, including housing, timber harvesting, farming, grazing, oil and gas extraction, business leasing, rights-of-way and easements. Interior also manages about 2,500 tribal trust accounts for more than 250 tribes.

Starting in the fall of 2009, lawyers for many of the tribes with litigation pending against the United States wrote to the president and asked the administration to engage in expedited settlement discussions with their clients. In April 2010, parties involved embarked on a settlement process that the tribes termed the “Settlement Proposal to Obama Administration,” or “SPOA,” which led in part to Wednesday’s announcement.

In addition to the SPOA process, the Departments of Justice, Interior and Treasury have been engaging in other settlement processes involving other litigating tribes. Those processes have been both positive and productive, resulting in the past settlement of other tribal trust accounting and management cases and the processes will continue for other ongoing cases.

Under the negotiated settlement agreements, litigation will end regarding the Department of the Interior’s accounting and management of the tribes’ trust accounts, trust lands and other natural resources. With monies from the congressionally-appropriated Judgment Fund, which is used to pay settlements or final judgments against the government, the United States will compensate the tribes for their breach of trust claims, and the tribes will waive, release and dismiss their claims with prejudice. The parties have agreed to information sharing procedures that will strengthen the management of trust assets and improve communications between tribes and the Department of the Interior. The settlement agreements also include dispute resolution provisions to reduce the likelihood of future litigation.

The sum total of the settlements with the 41 tribes is approximately $1.023 billion.