Science

Tribes legally evicted Colorado River reservation tenant, judge rules

Colorado River reservation tenant was legally evicted, but whether the tribes own the land is still undecided

A federal judge has ruled that the Colorado River Indian Tribes had legal authority to evict a tenant from a housing development on the California side of the Colorado River.

Indian officials were within their rights to evict tenant Roger French despite his claims that the tribes had no jurisdiction over the land, said Judge John Tuchi of the U.S. District Court in Arizona.

Tuchi found that the tribes had authority because French had voluntarily signed a lease agreement in 1983 that described his lot as within the Indian reservation and paid rent for 10 years before deciding to challenge the tribe's jurisdiction.

Tribal leaders say the holdouts are trespassers in pockets of an 1,800-acre, 17-mile-long expanse of reservation land subdivided into 250 leased lots that allow lessees to live along the river for a few hundred dollars a month.

Tuchi said his ruling does not address French's underlying assertion, which is that the reservation no longer includes land on the California side of the river because the Colorado has changed course.

That issue, which prompted California to support French's lawsuit, "remains unresolved," Tuchi said.

A tribal court had ordered French to pay $250,000 in legal expenses and 17 years of back rent. French said he plans to appeal.

French was among dozens of non-Indians who have refused to pay rent on their leases for years, claiming the area about 15 miles north of Blythe and just south of Parker, Ariz., isn't on reservation land. They contend that the reservation boundary is determined by the course of the river.

The tribes say the boundary is fixed and has always included the land at issue.

French cited a 1964 congressional act that recognized that the river had moved eastward since the reservation was established and exempted leasing authority on tribal land west of the river until it was determined to be within the reservation.

In 1969, then-Interior Secretary Stewart Udall declared the area part of the reservation and authorized lease permits to occupy the west bank lands.

The same year, however, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the boundary set in 1969 was not a final determination — but the court declined to address title to the disputed lands.

In the early 1990s, after learning about the Supreme Court ruling, French stopped paying rent, but remained on the lot until his eviction in 2011.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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