Rough Waters

The Animas-La Plata project is supposed to fulfill the government's promise to Colorado Utes. But tribal opponents worry it will leave the reservations high and dry.

Knight-Frank and Maynes, representing the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes, will head to Washington, D.C., after Chief Ouray Day to lobby Congress to support the Clinton administration's proposed $10 million appropriation that would finish the environmental statements on the project and get it rolling.

It's been a long time coming. A water project for the Utes in southern Colorado was first discussed in the 1950s, when government surveyors came to the area and tried to quantify how much of the 500,000 acre-feet of water that flow through the Animas every year belonged to the Utes. That was during the tenure of Leonard Burch's father, Sam Burch.

Ever since the days of Ouray and then Chief Buckskin Charlie, the Southern Utes had been criticized by other tribes--and even the more recalcitrant members of their own--for adapting too easily to the ways of the white man. But forward-looking leaders contended that the best way to ensure the culture and independence of the tribe was to learn the white man's ways so that the Southern Utes would be financially and politically poised to determine their own future.

Sam Burch was the first to urge the Southern Utes to wrest control of their natural resources from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and buy back reservation land from white settlers.

"My dad told me that a real leader sees the needs of the people, not only in the present but the future," Leonard Burch recalls. "He stressed the importance of protecting our precious natural resources. To work with the elders and to stress to our youth the importance of education. I have done my best to do that."

And the Southern Utes had a lot to work with. Although the U.S. government didn't know it at the time they deeded over the land, the Southern Ute reservation contained huge reservoirs of natural gas and extensive coal beds. In the Fifties and into the next decade, outside companies leased the rights to the gas resources and paid the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which maintained the tribe's accounts.

That changed in the fall of 1966, when Leonard Burch was elected to the tribal council, which in turn appointed him chairman. Under his leadership, the council demanded--and received--the right to handle their own natural resources, including negotiating the leases, receiving the payments and even establishing their own natural-gas production plant. Leonard Burch contracted with a young Durango attorney, Frank "Sam" Maynes Sr., to help handle the legal end.

One of Burch's other profitable investments was the hiring of a young man to manage the Southern Utes' horse-training facility. His name was Ben Campbell. A former U.S. Olympic judo-team member, Campbell had bought property near Ignacio, where he raised horses and made jewelry.

Years later Campbell told Burch that he'd been asked by the local Democrats to run for the Colorado legislature. "We've always donated to his campaigns," he says.

The money was well-spent. As a state legislator, Campbell supported a number of bills beneficial to the Utes. After he added a name, Nighthorse, and moved on to Congress, he was able to promote casino gaming on the reservations--the Southern Utes rake in a considerable amount of cash at their Sky Ute Casino--and the water-rights settlement.

"Now he's in the U.S. Senate," Burch says, "and whenever I go to Washington, I look him up and he always says, 'How'm I doin', boss? I doin' all right?'"

Some of Burch's decisions weren't immediately popular. At one point he stopped distributing the profits from gas revenues and instead insisted that the money be invested. Once the investments were profitable, he said, tribal members would receive dividends--much like stockholders in a corporation--leaving the principle intact.

As a result, the Southern Utes have been able to establish a college education fund that will pay for the education of any enrolled tribal member. Also, from the time a child is born and enrolled on the tribal scrolls, dividends totaling as much as a few thousand dollars a quarter are placed in trust for that child. They're then paid out in three stages: at ages 18, 21 and 25. Adults also receive quarterly dividends, which can total as much as $10,000 a year. There are low-interest tribal loan programs and even death benefits that will pay up to $10,000 to bring the remains of tribal members back to the reservation for burial. And, of course, each new head of a household is entitled to 160 acres of land.

Today even former skeptics agree that Burch's investment strategy was the wisest course, and he's been rewarded with their votes.

Except for a gap from 1984 to 1987 when Burch was out of office--forced to take a hiatus because of a 1975 change in the Southern Ute constitution that prohibits more than three consecutive three-year terms--he has been the recognized leader of the Southern Utes for three decades. And he was back in power in time to preside as the tribal chairman when Congress approved the Indian Water Rights Settlement Act negotiated between the tribes, the feds and the State of Colorado.

Initially authorized by Congress in 1968 as an irrigation project, in 1987 the Animas-La Plata project was adapted to meet Ute water claims for the Animas. Older water projects completed two decades ago had created reservoirs on the Florida River and the Piedras, both of which supply water to Southern Ute lands. But under the terms of the water-rights agreement, the tribe was entitled to more.

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