SALT LAKE CITY — A federal judge is allowing the state to intervene in a lawsuit that stakes claim to a huge chunk of land in eastern Utah and as much as a billion dollars in reparations.
In an order filed this week in a federal court in Washington, D.C., U.S. District Court Judge Carl Nichols allowed the Utah Attorney General's Office to jump into a lawsuit between the Ute Tribe and the federal government.
"Utah is entitled to intervene as of right," the judge wrote.
The state has been worried about this lawsuit for some time. In a 2018 interview with FOX 13, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes called the tribe's lawsuit "a case of epic proportions that has slid under the radar for some time."
The Ute Tribe sued the U.S. Department of Interior over an issue dating back to the 1800s. It claims the Uncompahgre band of the Utes were ousted from their lands in eastern Utah and portions of Colorado. However, they were never compensated for the land as promised in mineral, water and grazing rights. The Bureau of Land Management continues to lease the land.
In addition to the 1.8 million acres of historic Uncompaghre land that stretches through Uintah, Duchesne and Grand counties, the attorney general's office has said the Ute Tribe is seeking roughly a billion dollars in lost compensation.
Reyes' office intervened to protect state rights to mineral, school trust lands and the potential damages amount. In his ruling, Judge Nichols did chastize the attorney general for waiting so long to intervene, but allowed them to proceed.
"Utah has also demonstrated a legally protected interest that is threatened by this action. Utah claims (and Ute does not dispute) that an adverse outcome in this action could deprive Utah of federal mineral royalty revenues," he wrote. "These losses alone, which may total tens of millions of dollars annually, are a legally protected interest at risk of being impaired."
The Ute Tribe has resisted the state's intervention and told Utah authorities to stay out. The lawsuit has become political, with Governor Gary Herbert expressing hope for a settlement and lawmakers concerned it could impact the state's relations with the tribe.
An attorney representing the tribe did not immediately respond to a request seeking comment on the judge's ruling. The Utah Attorney General's Office said Friday it had no comment.