Government Returns Vast Tract in Utah to Native Americans

By Cat Lazaroff

FORT DUCHESNE, Utah, January 14, 2000 (ENS) - Energy Secretary Bill Richardson today announced an agreement for the largest voluntary return of land to Native Americans in the lower 48 states in more than a century. The Department of Energy also announced plans to clean up and remove 10.5 million tons of radioactive mill tailings from the doorstep of two national treasures - Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park, near Moab, Utah.

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The land the DOE is returning to the Ute Tribe is rugged and undeveloped (Two photos courtesy U.S. Forest Service)
Under the agreement, the Department of Energy's (DOE) Naval Oil Shale Reserve No. 2, an 84,000 acre tract of undeveloped land in the northeastern corner of the state, would be returned to the Ute Tribe. The land, which is rich in oil shale deposits, was taken from the Ute reservation in 1916 for use as a potential source of fuel for the U.S. Navy's oil burning ships.

The agreement also will provide for additional environmental protection for a 75 mile stretch of the Green River. Richardson made the announcement at Fort Duchesne on the Ute Indian Tribe reservation and in Moab.

"Today, we're doing the right thing - the right thing for the environment, the right thing for the Utes, the right thing for the state of Utah and the right thing for the American people," Richardson said.

The agreement was signed by Secretary Richardson, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Ute tribal business committee chairman O. Roland McCook Sr. and Utah Governor Michael Leavitt.

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The Ute Tribe has agreed to create a protected corridor along 75 miles of the Green River
"In 1882, the United States identified lands in eastern Utah that were to remain tribal property for all time. Regrettably, this promise, like so many given to the Tribe over the years, proved to be false," said McCook, chairman of the Ute Tribe's governing body. "As a result of the leadership of Secretary Richardson, however, a portion of the promise is now to be fulfilled. The return of our traditional homelands is not only a great day for the Tribe and its membership, but also may well mark a new beginning for Indian Country as a whole."

"The people of Utah appreciate and applaud Secretary Richardson and the U.S. Department of Energy for taking this bold action to address two longtime issues in our state: the return of the Ute Tribe's land to Tribal ownership and control, and a plan to further address the environmental problems posed by the Atlas tailings in Moab," said Governor Leavitt.

The uranium mill tailings are the radioactive contaminated waste products from nearly three decades of uranium mining operations. The waste sits in a 110 foot mound near two national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. The tailings contain low levels of radioactivity from uranium, radium, as well as hazardous materials such as arsenic, lead, mercury and other chemicals and metals left by the processes used to separate the uranium from the ore.

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Canyonlands National Park lies in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau (Photo courtesy Canyonlands National Park)
Under the agreement reached today, the DOE will seek funding and authority to remove the tailings and clean up the site. The clean up would be regulated by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), with participation by the state of Utah.

"Today's agreement gives us the momentum we need for congressional action," Richardson explained. The Clinton/Gore Administration will be seeking legislation to carry out the land transfer and the mill tailing cleanup.

"This agreement in principle is a great first step," said Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "There are still, of course, many issues that have to be worked out, but we are moving forward in a very positive, productive way to restore this landscape. This area is the historical home of the Ute people. It is a gateway to two magnificent national parks, Arches and Canyonlands. It deserves our best restoration efforts."

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Arches National Park is named for its dramatic natural bridges (Photo courtesy Arches National Park)
The Ute Tribe has agreed to establish a quarter mile land corridor along a 75 mile stretch of the Green River that will be protected as environmentally sensitive. The Green River, one of the nation's most scenic rivers, winds across eastern Utah through miles of undeveloped backcountry and ancient canyons. In addition, a portion of any royalties from future energy production on the lands would go into a fund to help clean up the nation's fifth largest pile of uranium mill tailings located near Moab.

Estimated cost to move the tailings away from Moab is about $300 million. The uranium waste resulted from mill operations at the site from 1956 to 1984. Denver-based Atlas Corp., which owned the site from 1962 through 1984, filed for bankruptcy two years ago. The NRC, which had been working with the Atlas Corporation for more than a decade to select and implement a final cleanup plan, recently appointed a trustee to manage the work.

"The time to act is now," Richardson said. "Radioactive waste sits at the gateway of two national parks - Arches and Canyonlands. This area is a geological wonderland, nestled in a valley with scenic red cliffs and surrounded by rugged, beautiful desert terrain. The Department of Energy has the expertise and experience to relocate the material in a secure, permanent location that is safely away from the Colorado River and the national parks."