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Strickland v. United States

December 15, 1999


Before Michel, Rader, and Gajarsa, Circuit Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gajarsa, Circuit Judge.

Appealed from: United States Court of Federal Claims

Judge Robert H. Hodges, Jr.


This is an appeal from an order of the United States Court of Federal Claims granting Appellee's motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Appellants' suit was time-barred. See Strickland v. United States, 42 Ct. Cl. 41 (Cl. Ct. 1998). For the reasons that follow, we conclude that the Court of Federal Claims erred in granting summary judgment and we reverse and remand.


This case represents the clear and repetitious intent of the United States Congress to resolve a pernicious land issue that has taken five generations to bring to a conclusion. In 1897, Congress enacted the Forest Management Act (the "1897 Act"), Act of June 4, 1897, 30 Stat. 11 (1897), in response to President Grover Cleveland's efforts to establish a system of national forest reserves. The 1897 Act included a "forest in lieu selection" provision, whereby an owner of an unperfected bona fide claim or tract of land within a designated national forest reservation could relinquish the claim or reconvey the land to the United States, and then select in lieu thereof an equal acreage of vacant public land ("lieu land") then open to settlement:

That in cases in which a tract of land covered by an unperfected bona fide claim or by a patent is included within the limits of a public forest reservation, the settler or owner thereof may, if he desires to do so, relinquish the tract to the Government, and may select in lieu thereof a tract of vacant land open to settlement not exceeding in area the tract covered by his claim of patent. Id. at 36.

Appellants' predecessors in interest were owners of such lands. *fn1 They quitclaimed real property to the United States in 1904 pursuant to this provision, but did not at that time make a selection of lieu land.

The 1897 Act did not limit the lieu right to the actual settlers on the lands involved, but extended it to owners of such lands generally. Id. As a result, there ensued a number of fraudulent and scandalous transactions whereby land speculators and railroads acquired control of a number of potentially valuable lands within the forest reserves. As abuse and fraud came to be associated with the lieu program, Congress repealed the 1897 Act in 1905 and enacted a substitute statute (the "1905 Act"). Act of March 3, 1905, 33 Stat. 1264 (1905). Although the 1905 Act repealed the forest lieu program, it preserved the contracts entered into and applications for lieu lands that had been submitted prior to the repeal of the 1897 Act. The 1905 Act did not provide, however, for those owners who, like Appellants, had previously relinquished their land to the United States by deed but had not yet made a selection of lieu land. Concerned by this shortcoming, the United States Senate passed a resolution in 1906 directing the Secretary of the Interior (the "Secretary") to provide it with a list of all such persons. *fn2 See 40 Cong. Rec. 3947 (1906).

To remedy the inequity to these persons who had relinquished land but had not received land in exchange, Congress acted again in 1922 by passing another statute (the "1922 Act"). The 1922 Act authorized the Secretary to accept the lands transferred by the identified persons and in exchange the Secretary could issue a patent for lieu property selected by the grantor or allow the grantor to cut and remove timber from other national forest lands. Act of September 22, 1922, Pub. L. No. 67-339, 42 Stat. 1017 (1922). Only those landowners who filed applications for lieu lands or timber within five years, however, were given this "last chance" to receive compensation under one of these options, and many never met this deadline. Appellants were among those who did not apply for a timber allowance or a lieu land selection under the 1922 Act. Id. § 1.

Apparently, Appellants were not alone in failing to close out their claims. Congress once again attempted to deal with these unresolved claims by passing another remedial statute in 1930 (the "1930 Act"). Act of April 28, 1930, Pub. L. No. 71-174, 46 Stat. 257 (1930). The 1930 Act gave those who had not yet received compensation under the previous statutes one more "last chance" to avail themselves of a remedy. Under the 1930 Act, the United States would reconvey lands previously relinquished to the United States under the 1897 Act back to the original owners who, like Appellants, had not filed for one of the options under the 1922 Act. Nevertheless, a number of claims, including those of Appellants, remained unresolved. The remedy afforded by the 1930 Act lay dormant until the 1950's, when it began to be used by some parties as a means of obtaining reconveyance of certain highly valuable lands that were now within areas that had been established as national forests or national parks. See H.R. Rep. No. 102-89, 102d Cong., 1st Sess., at 5 (1991). This led to "what the public press, conservation interests and others regarded as being virtually a give-away of public resources approaching a scandal." Sen. Rep. No. 1639, 86th Cong., 2d Sess. (1960), reprinted in 1960 U.S.C.C.A.N. 2743, 2744.

In response, Congress again revisited the matter and in 1960 enacted what came to be known as the Sisk Act. Act of July 6, 1960, Pub. L. No. 86-596, 74 Stat. 334 (1960). This statute gave those who had conveyed their property under the 1897 Act, but who had not yet received lieu lands or other compensation for their previously relinquished lands, another "last chance" to file a claim for compensation within one year after enactment. Id. The Sisk Act also provided that any lands for which payments were or might have been made would be part of the national park or forest within which they were located. *fn3 Id. § 4. Under the Sisk Act, owners of such lands could voluntarily file claims for compensation of $1.25 per acre within one year of the statute's enactment. No claims were ever filed under the Sisk Act, however, and no compensation was ever granted to anyone, including Appellants, who were eligible to file a claim.

Attempting again to settle the status of these remaining claims, the Congress passed yet another "last chance" statute, the Western Lands Dispute Act in 1993. Act of July 2, 1993, Pub. L. No. 103-48, 107 Stat. 234 (1993). Like the prior acts, the Western Lands Dispute Act sought to resolve the remaining claims resulting from uncompleted transfers and neglected in lieu selections under the 1897 Act. The Western Lands Dispute Act provided that all lands for which compensation had not been sought should be quitclaimed back to the owners unless they were identified by the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture as "nationally significant lands." Id. § 2(a). It then directed the Secretaries to prepare a "final list" of lands that needed to be retained to meet public needs. Id. § 2(d). These ...

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