Supreme Court of the United States
UTAH DIVISION OF STATE LANDS
Decided June 8, 1987
Justice O’Connor, For the Court
|Court vote: 5–4
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|Citation: 482 U.S. 193
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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
The issue in this case is whether title to the bed of Utah Lake passed to the State of Utah under the equal footing doctrine upon Utah's admission to the Union in 1896.
The equal footing doctrine is deeply rooted in history, and the proper application of the doctrine requires an understanding of its origins. Under English common law, the English Crown held sovereign title to all lands underlying navigable waters. Because title to such land was important to the sovereign's ability to control navigation, fishing, and other commercial activity on rivers and lakes, ownership of this land was considered an essential attribute of sovereignty.
Title to such land was therefore vested in the sovereign for the benefit of the whole people. See Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U. S. 1, 152 U. S. 11 -14 (1894). When the 13 Colonies became independent from Great Britain, they claimed title to the lands under navigable waters within their boundaries as the sovereign successors to the English Crown. Id. at 152 U. S. 15. Because all subsequently admitted States enter the Union on an "equal footing" with the original 13 States, they too hold title to the land under navigable waters within their boundaries upon entry into the Union. Pollard's Lessee v. Hagan, 3 How. 212 (1845).
In Pollard's Lessee, this Court announced the principle that the United States held the lands under navigable waters in the Territories "in trust" for the future States that would be created, and in dicta even suggested that the equal footing doctrine absolutely prohibited the United States from taking any steps to defeat the passing of title to land underneath navigable waters to the States. Id. at 44 U. S. 230. Half a century later, however, the Court disavowed the dicta in Pollard's Lessee, and held that the Federal Government had the power, under the Property Clause, to convey such land to third parties:
By the Constitution, as is now well settled, the United States, having rightfully acquired the Territories, and being the only government which can impose laws upon them, have the entire dominion and sovereignty, national and municipal, Federal and state, over all the Territories, so long as they remain in territorial condition.... We cannot doubt, therefore, that Congress has the power to make grants of lands below high water mark of navigable waters in any Territory of the United States, whenever it becomes necessary to do so in order to perform international obligations, or to effect the improvement of such lands for the promotion and convenience of commerce with foreign nations and among the several States, or to carry out other public purposes appropriate to the objects for which the United States hold the Territory.
Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. at 152 U. S. 48. Thus, under the Constitution, the Federal Government could defeat a prospective State's title to land under navigable waters by a pre-statehood conveyance of the land to a private party for a public purpose appropriate to the Territory. The Court further noted, however, that Congress had never undertaken by general land laws to dispose of land under navigable waters. Ibid. From this, the Court inferred a congressional policy (although not a constitutional obligation) to grant away land under navigable waters only "in case of some international duty or public exigency." Id. at 152 U. S. 50.
The principles articulated in Shively have been applied a number of times by this Court, and in each case we have consistently acknowledged congressional policy to dispose of sovereign lands only in the most unusual circumstances. In recognition of this policy, we do not lightly infer a congressional intent to defeat a State's title to land under navigable waters:
[T]he United States early adopted and constantly has adhered to the policy of regarding lands under navigable waters in acquired territory, while under its sole dominion, as held for the ultimate benefit of future States, and so has refrained from making any disposal thereof, save in exceptional instances when impelled to particular disposals by some international duty or public exigency. It follows from this that disposals by the United States during the territorial period are not lightly to be inferred, and should not be regarded as intended unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain.
United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U. S. 49, 270 U. S. 55 (1926).
We have stated that
[a] court deciding a question of title to the bed of a navigable water must... begin with a strong presumption against conveyance by the United States, and must not infer such a conveyance unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain, or was rendered in clear and especial words, or unless the claim confirmed in terms embraces the land under the waters of the stream.
Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544, 450 U. S. 552 (1981) (internal quotations omitted; citations omitted). Indeed, in only a single case - Choctaw Nation v. Oklahoma, 397 U. S. 620 (1970) -have we concluded that Congress intended to grant sovereign lands to a private party. The holding in Choctaw Nation, moreover, rested on the unusual history behind the Indian treaties at issue in that case, and indispensable to the holding was a promise to the Indian Tribe that no part of the reservation would become part of a State. Montana v. United States, supra, at 450 U. S. 555, n. 5. Choctaw Nation was thus literally a "singular exception," in which the result depended "on very peculiar circumstances." 450 U.S. at 455 U. S. 555, n. 5.
Utah Lake is a navigable body of freshwater covering 150 square miles. It is drained by the Jordan River, which flows northward and empties into the Great Salt Lake. Several years before the entry of Utah into the Union,
[t]he opening of the arid lands to homesteading raised the specter that settlers might claim lands more suitable for reservoir sites or other irrigation works, impeding future reclamation efforts.
California v. United States, 438 U. S. 645, 438 U. S. 659 (1978). In response, Congress passed the Sundry Appropriations Act of 1888, 25 Stat. 505 (1888 Act), which authorized the United States Geological Survey to select
sites for reservoirs and other hydraulic works necessary for the storage and utilization of water for irrigation and the prevention of floods and overflows.
Id. at 526. The Act further provided that the United States would reserve the sites that might be so selected:
[A]ll the lands which may hereafter be designated or selected... for sites for reservoirs, ditches or canals for irrigation purposes and all the lands made susceptible of irrigation by such reservoirs, ditches or canals are from this time henceforth hereby reserved from sale as the property of the United States, and shall not be subject after the passage of this act, to entry, settlement or occupation until further provided by law.
Id. at 527.
On April 6, 1889, Major John Wesley Powell, the Director of the United States Geological Survey, submitted a report to the Secretary of the Interior stating that the
site of Utah Lake in Utah County in the Territory of Utah is hereby selected as a reservoir site, together with all lands situate within two statute miles of the border of said lake at high water.
App. 19. The Commissioner of the General Land Office subsequently informed the Land Office at Salt Lake City of the selection of "the site of Utah Lake" as "a reservoir site," and instructed the Land Office "to refuse further entries or filing on the lands designated, in accordance with the [Sundry Appropriations] Act of October 2, 1888." Letter of Apr. 11, 1889, App. 21. The selection of Utah Lake as a reservoir was confirmed in the official reports of the Geological Survey to Congress.
Because the 1888 Act reserved all the land that "may" be designated, the 1888 Act had the practical effect of reserving all of the public lands in the West from public settlement. California v. United States, 438 U.S. at 438 U. S. 659. Therefore, in 1890 -in response to "a perfect storm of indignation from the people of the West," ibid. (quoting 29 Cong.Rec.1955 (1897) (statement of Cong. McRae)) -Congress repealed the 1888 Act in the Sundry Appropriations Act of 1890, ch. 837, 26 Stat. 371 (1890 Act). In repealing the 1888 Act, however, Congress provided
that reservoir sites heretofore located or selected shall remain segregated and reserved from entry or settlement as provided by [the 1888 Act].
Id. at 391. Six years later, on January 4, 1896, Utah entered the Union. The Utah Enabling Act of July 16, 1894, provided that Utah was "to be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States." 28 Stat. 107.
In 1976, the Bureau of Land Management of the United States Department of the Interior issued oil and gas leases for lands underlying Utah Lake. Viewing this as a violation of its ownership and property rights to the bed of Utah Lake, the State of Utah brought suit in the District Court for the District of Utah seeking a declaratory judgment that it, rather than the United States, had title to the lakebed. Utah also sought an injunction against interference with its alleged ownership and management rights. In its complaint, Utah claimed that, on January 4, 1896, by virtue of the State's admission into the Union on an equal footing with all other States, the State of Utah became the owner of the bed of Utah Lake. The United States, in turn, answered that title to the lakebed remained in federal ownership by operation of Major Powell's selection of the lake as a reservoir site in 1889. The District Court granted summary judgment for the United States, holding that the United States held title to the bed of Utah Lake. 624 F.Supp. 622 (1983). The District Court found that the withdrawal of the bed of Utah Lake in 1889 pursuant to the 1888 Act defeated Utah's claim to title under the equal footing doctrine. The Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. 780 F.2d 1515 (1985). We granted certiorari, 479 U.S. 881 (1986), and now reverse.
The State of Utah contends that only a conveyance to a third party, and not merely a federal reservation of land, can defeat a State's title to land under navigable waters upon entry into the Union. Although this Court has always spoken in terms of a "conveyance" by the United States before statehood, we have never decided whether Congress may defeat a State's claim to title by a federal reservation or withdrawal of land under navigable waters. In Shively, this Court concluded that the only constitutional limitation on the right to grant sovereign land is that such a grant must be for a "public purpos[e] appropriate to the objects for which the United States hold[s] the Territory." 152 U.S. at 152 U. S. 48. In the Court's view, the power to make such a grant arose out of the Federal Government's power over Territories under the Property Clause of the United States Constitution, which provides:
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States....
U.S.Const., Art. IV, § 3, cl. 2.
The Property Clause grants Congress plenary power to regulate and dispose of land within the Territories, and assuredly Congress also has the power to acquire land in aid of other powers conferred on it by the Constitution. Under Utah's view, however, while the United States could create a reservoir site by granting title to Utah Lake to a private entity, the United States could not accomplish the same purpose by a means that would keep Utah Lake under federal control. We need not decide that question today, however, because even if a reservation of the bed of Utah Lake could defeat Utah's claim, it was not accomplished on these facts.
Although arguably there is nothing in the Constitution to prevent the Federal Government from defeating a State's title to land under navigable waters by its own reservation for a particular use, the strong presumption is against finding an intent to defeat the State's title. In Shively and Holt State Bank, this Court observed that Congress "early adopted and constantly has adhered" to a policy of holding land under navigable waters "for the ultimate benefit of future States." United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. at 279 U. S. 55 ; Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. at 152 U. S. 49 -50. Congress, therefore, will defeat a future State's entitlement to land under navigable waters only "in exceptional instances," and in light of this policy, whether faced with a reservation or a conveyance, we simply cannot infer that Congress intended to defeat a future State's title to land under navigable waters "unless the intention was definitely declared or otherwise made very plain." United States v. Holt State Bank, supra, at 270 U. S. 55.
When Congress intends to convey land under navigable waters to a private party, of necessity it must also intend to defeat the future State's claim to the land. When Congress reserves land for a particular purpose, however, it may not also intend to defeat a future State's title to the land. The land remains in federal control, and therefore may still be held for the ultimate benefit of future States. Moreover, even if the land under navigable water passes to the State, the Federal Government may still control, develop, and use the waters for its own purposes. Arizona v. California, 373 U. S. 546, 373 U. S. 597 -598 (1963). Congress, for example, may intend to create a reservoir, but also intend to let the State obtain title to the land underneath this reservoir upon entry into statehood. Such an intent would not be unusual. In Montana v. United States, 450 U. S. 544 (1981), we found that Congress intended to permit the State to take title to the bed of a navigable river even though the river was in the midst of an Indian Reservation, and in United States v. Holt State Bank, supra, we held that Congress intended the State to hold title to the bed of a navigable lake wholly within the boundaries of an Indian Reservation.
Given the longstanding policy of holding land under navigable waters for the ultimate benefit of the States, therefore, we would not infer an intent to defeat a State's equal footing entitlement from the mere act of reservation itself. Assuming, arguendo, that a reservation of land could be effective to overcome the strong presumption against the defeat of state title, the United States would not merely be required to establish that Congress clearly intended to include land under navigable waters within the federal reservation; the United States would additionally have to establish that Congress affirmatively intended to defeat the future State's title to such land.
We conclude that the 1888 Act fails to make sufficiently plain either a congressional intent to include the bed of Utah Lake within the reservation or an intent to defeat Utah's claim to title under the equal footing doctrine. The 1888 Act provided that the reserved lands were
reserved from sale as the property of the United States, and shall not be subject... to entry, settlement or occupation until further provided by law.
25 Stat. 527. The words of the 1888 Act did not necessarily refer to lands under navigable waters, because lands under navigable lakes and rivers such as the bed of Utah Lake were already the property of the United States, and were already exempt from sale, entry, settlement, or occupation under the general land laws. As this Court recognized in Shively v. Bowlby, supra, at 152 U. S. 48, "Congress has never undertaken by general laws to dispose of" land under navigable waters. See also Mann v. Tacoma Land Co., 153 U. S. 273, 153 U. S. 284 (1894) (applying Shively v. Bolby, supra, to hold that "the general legislation of Congress in respect to public lands does not extend to tide lands"); Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U. S. 387, 146 U. S. 437 (1892) (holding that "the same doctrine as to the dominion and sovereignty over and ownership of lands under the navigable waters... applies, which obtains at the common law as to the dominion and sovereignty over and ownership of lands under tide waters on the borders of the sea"). Therefore, little purpose would have been served by the reservation of the bed of Utah Lake. Moreover, the concerns with monopolization and speculation that motivated Congress to enact the 1888 Act, see P. Gates, History of Public Land Law Development 641 (1968), had nothing to do with the beds of navigable rivers and lakes.
The intent to reach only land that would otherwise be available for sale and settlement is made manifest by the Act's proviso:
Provided, That the President may at any time in his discretion by proclamation open any portion or all of the lands reserved by this provision to settlement under the homestead laws.
25 Stat. 527. This proviso would permit the President to open any land reserved under the 1888 Act to settlement under the homesteading laws. We find it inconceivable that Congress intended by this simple proviso to abandon its long-held and unyielding policy of never permitting the sale or settlement of land under navigable waters under the general land laws. Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. at 152 U. S. 48. The proviso can be interpreted consistently with that policy only if lands under navigable waters were not subject to reservation under the 1888 Act in the first instance.
The United States, however, does not rely solely on the 1888 Act. It points to references to the bed of Utah Lake made by the Geological Survey in reserving Utah Lake, and contends that Congress ratified the Geological Survey's reservation of the bed of Utah Lake in the 1890 Act. In the 1890 Act, Congress repealed the 1888 Act, but also specifically provided that
reservoir sites heretofore located or selected shall remain segregated and reserved from entry or settlement as provided by [the 1888] Act, until otherwise provided by law.
26 Stat. 391. Thus, the United States argues, Congress ratified the reservation of the lakebed of Utah Lake.
At first examination, statements made by the Geological Survey in reserving Utah Lake might seem to support this argument. The Tenth Annual Report of the Geological Survey (1890), which was transmitted to Congress, stated that an individual had been sent to examine Utah Lake "with reference to its capacity for a reservoir site," in order that he might
furnish the specifications for its withdrawal as such under the law, so far as the lands covered or overflowed by it or the lands bordering upon it were still public lands.
App. 25. Furthermore, in the Eleventh Annual Report (1891), the Geological Survey reported that "the segregation" of Utah Lake "was made to include not only the bed, but the lowlands up to mean high water." App. 29. The Geological Survey's references to the "segregation" of the bed of Utah Lake, however, must be placed in the proper context. A "segregation" of land simply means that the land is no longer subject to disposal under the public land laws. See E. Baynard, Public Land Law and Procedure § 5.32, p. 174 (1986). The bed of Utah Lake had already been "segregated" by the United States Geological Survey even before the adoption of the 1888 Act. The United States had surveyed Utah Lake between 1856 and 1878, and had established the "meander line" -the mean high-water elevation -segregating the land covered by navigable waters from land available for public sale and settlement. * 4 Record, Doc. F; U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Manual of Instructions for Survey of Public Lands of the United States § 3-115, p. 93 (1973) ("All navigable bodies of water and other important rivers and lakes are segregated from the public lands at mean high-water elevation"). Given that the bed of Utah Lake was already "segregated" from public sale, the United States Geological Survey Reports are best understood as reporting the further segregation of the lands adjacent to the lake which, until the reservation of Utah Lake in 1889, had not been segregated, and thus had been available for public settlement. In the Eleventh Annual Report, for example, the Geological Survey's announcement that "the segregation" of Utah Lake "includ[ed] not only the bed but the lowlands up to mean high water," in our view, simply announced an increase in the segregated portion of Utah Lake. App. 29. Because the bed of Utah Lake had been segregated as early as 1878, the Geological Survey's statement that the lakebed was segregated need not be taken as a statement that the bed was included within the reservation. Similarly, the Tenth Annual Report's statement that a Geological Survey employee would furnish specifications for a withdrawal "so far as the lands covered or overflowed by [Utah Lake] or the lands bordering upon it were still public lands, " id. at 25 (emphasis supplied), is consistent with an intention that the Geological Survey would withdraw those lands still subject to public settlement, i.e., the lands that were "still public lands." See Baynard, supra, § 1.1, p. 2 ("Most enduringly, the public lands have been defined as those lands subject to sale or other disposal under the general land laws") (emphasis in original). Because the bed of Utah Lake was not at that time "public land" subject to settlement, we think it doubtful that the Tenth Annual Report should be understood as informing Congress that the Geological Survey had reserved the bed of Utah Lake.
The record reflects that the Geological Survey's concern in 1889 was not with the bed of Utah Lake; rather its concern was that the land adjacent to the lake was then available for public sale and settlement under the general land laws. In Major Powell's letter to the Department of the Interior announcing the selection of Utah Lake as a reservoir site, he did not discuss the bed of Utah Lake. Instead, he observed that
further entries of the lands adjoining Utah Lake will have a tendency to defeat the purposes of [the 1888 Act] and obstruct the use of the lake as a natural reservoir,
App. 20, and that "speedy action" was necessary to avoid settlement. Ibid. Thus, Major Powell recommended that "the Register of the Land Office at Salt Lake City be instructed to refuse entries of public land within" two miles of the lake. Ibid. The local land office was so instructed by the Department of the Interior. Id. at 21.
We further find no clear demonstration that Congress intended to ratify any reservation of the bed of Utah Lake in the 1890 Act. At best, the United States points to only scattered references to the bed of Utah Lake in the material submitted to Congress, and presents no unambiguous evidence that Members of Congress actually understood these references as pointing to a reservation of the bed of Utah Lake. As with the 1888 Act, the language of the 1890 Act is consistent with the view that only land available for entry and sale was reserved:
[R]eservoir sites heretofore located or selected shall remain segregated and reserved from entry or settlement as provided by said act, until otherwise provided by law....
26 Stat. 391.
In sum, the 1890 Act can be understood as ratifying a reservation of the bed of Utah Lake only by ignoring the language of the 1890 Act and by taking the Geological Survey's references to the bed of Utah Lake out of context. Under our precedents, however, we cannot so lightly infer the reservation of land under navigable waters. We conclude, therefore, that the 1890 Act no more " definitely declared or otherwise made very plain'" Congress' intention to reserve Utah Lake than had the 1888 Act. Montana v. United States, 450 U.S. at 450 U. S. 552 (quoting United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. at 270 U. S. 55 ).
Even if Congress did intend to reserve the bed of Utah Lake in either the 1888 Act or the 1890 Act, however, Congress did not clearly express an intention to defeat Utah's claim to the lakebed under the equal footing doctrine upon entry into statehood. The United States points to no evidence of a congressional intent to defeat Utah's entitlement to the bed of Utah Lake, and the structure and the history of the 1888 Act strongly suggest that Congress had no such intention. On its face, the 1888 Act does not purport to defeat the entitlement of future States to any land reserved. Instead, the Act merely provides that any reserved land is "reserved from sale" and "shall not be subject... to entry, settlement or occupation"; it makes no mention of the States' entitlement to the beds of navigable rivers and lakes upon entry into statehood. The transfer of title of the bed of Utah Lake to Utah, moreover, would not necessarily prevent the Federal Government from subsequently developing a reservoir or water reclamation project at the lake, in any event. See, e.g., Arizona v. California, 283 U. S. 423, 283 U. S. 451 -452, 283 U. S. 457 (1931) (holding that the United States has power to construct a dam and reservoir on a navigable river and reserving question of such power for purpose of irrigating public lands).
Finally, the broad sweep of the 1888 Act cannot be reconciled with an intent to defeat the States' title to the land under navigable waters. As noted above, the 1888 Act "had the practical effect of reserving all of the public lands in the West from settlement." California v. United States, 438 U.S. at 438 U. S. 659. In light of the congressional policy of defeating the future States' title to the lands under navigable waters only "in exceptional instances" in case of "international duty or public exigency," United States v. Holt State Bank, supra, at 270 U. S. 55, we find it inconceivable that Congress intended to defeat the future States' title to all such land in the western United States. Such an action would be wholly at odds with Congress' policy of holding this land for the ultimate benefit of the future States.
In sum, Congress did not definitely declare or otherwise make very plain either its intention to reserve the bed of Utah Lake or to defeat Utah's title to the bed under the equal footing doctrine. Accordingly, we hold that the bed of Utah Lake passed to Utah upon that State's entry into statehood on January 4, 1896. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is
* The dissent misconstrues our argument with regard to the segregation of Utah Lake between 1856 and 1878. Post at 482 U. S. 214, n. 5. Our point is not that the meander line was a "boundary" between the lands under the navigable waters and the adjacent lands granted by the Federal Government to private citizens, nor that this line settled the property rights of those who occupied exposed land within the meander line when Utah Lake receded. The resolution of these issues is complex, depending in large measure on the facts of the specific survey. See 4 Record, Doc. J, p. 27 (Department of Interior Memorandum discussing the effect of the exposure of land contained within the meander line to Utah Lake on land patents granted before 1888); Poynter v. Chipman, 8 Utah 442, 32 P. 690 (1893) (case involving title to land between meander line and shoreline of Utah Lake); Knudsen v. Omanson, 10 Utah 124, 37 P. 250 (1894) (same); Hinckley v. Peay, 22 Utah 21, 60 P. 1012 (1900) (same). We express no opinion on these matters. Instead, our point is a simpler one -that the meander line "segregated" the bed of Utah Lake from public sale even before the 1889 reservation, and, accordingly, that the references to the "segregation" of the lakebed by the United States Geological Survey cannot be taken as unambiguous statements of an intent to include the lakebed within the 1889 reservation.
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