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Watt v. Western Nuclear, Inc.

ELR Citation: 13 ELR 20849
Nos. No. 81-1686, 462 U.S. 36/(U.S., 06/06/1983)

The Supreme Court, reversing the Tenth Circuit, rules that gravel found on lands patented under the Stock-Raising Homestead Act of 1916 (SRHA) is a mineral reserved to the United States within the meaning of §9 of the Act.SRHA provided for the settlement of homesteads on lands suitable for grazing and raising crops. Section 9 reserves to the United States title to "all coal and other minerals" in ranching and farming lands patented under the Act.

Western Nuclear acquired a fee interest in land covered by the patent and proceeded to remove gravel from the land for paving streets and sidewalks in a nearby town where Western Nuclear employees resided. The Bureau of Land Management determined that removal of the gravel constituted a trespass against the United States in violation of Department of the Interior regulations. The federal district court affirmed the Interior Board of Land Appeals' decision, holding that gravel is a mineral reserved to the United States in patents issued under the SRHA, but the Tenth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court holds first that Congress' purpose in the SRHA of facilitating the development of both surface and subsurface resources supports construing the mineral reservation to encompass gravel. Congress expected that homesteaders would use the surface of SRHA lands for ranching and farming and it sought through the reservation clause to ensure that the valuable subsurface resources would be developed in accordance with federal mining laws. Given this understanding, the Court rules that the reservation clause includes any substance, mineral in character, not intended to be included in the surface estate, which could be removed from the soil and used for commercial purposes. Gravel that has commercial value is encompassed in this definition.

The Court then finds that the treatment of gravel under other federal statutes and federal administrative and judicial decisions supports the conclusion that gravel is a mineral for purposes of the SRHA.

Finally, the Court supports its decision by applying the rule that land grants are construed favorably to the government. The rule is particularly applicable in this case because the legislative history of the SRHA reveals Congress' understanding that the mineral reservation would limit the operation of the Act strictly to the surface of the lands.

Writing in dissent, Justice Powell argues that the agency that administered the mining laws in 1916 and assisted in the development of the SRHA had consistently excluded gravel from the definition of "mineral." He concludes that the clear intent of Congress in adopting the SRHA was to exclude gravel from the reservation clause.

The full text of this opinion is available from ELR (42 pp. $5.75, ELR Order No. C-1317).

Counsel for Petitioners
John H. Garvey, Louis F. Claiborne
Office of the Solicitor General
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2687

Robert L. Klarquist
Land and Natural Resources Division
Department of Justice, Washington DC 20530
(202) 633-2731

Counsel for Respondent
Harley W. Shaver III, John H. Licht
Canges, Shaver, Volpe & Licht
600 Capitol Life Ctr., 1600 Sherman St., Denver CO 80203
(303) 861-4070

Marshall, J.