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UTAH v. UNITED STATES

decided: March 3, 1969.

UTAH
v.
UNITED STATES



ON EXCEPTIONS TO SPECIAL MASTER'S REPORT.

Warren, Black, Douglas, Harlan, Brennan, Stewart, White, Fortas; Marshall took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

Author: Per Curiam

[ 394 U.S. Page 89]

 We are called upon to deal with exceptions filed by Morton International, Inc., which protests the decision by our Special Master, Senior Circuit Judge J. Cullen Ganey, denying it leave to intervene as a party defendant in this original action. While we affirm the Master's decision, we do so for reasons which are somewhat different from those advanced in the Master's Report. Consequently, it will be necessary to describe the nature

[ 394 U.S. Page 90]

     of the underlying controversy before the basis for our disposition of this matter will become clear.

This case arises out of a long-standing dispute between the United States and Utah over the ownership of the Great Salt Lake. The importance and difficulty of the controversy is magnified by the fact that, over the course of years, the lake has proceeded to shrink in size, laying bare some 600,000 acres of land which had formerly been a part of the lakebed (the so-called "relicted" lands). In 1966, Congress moved to resolve the controversy by passing a special Act, 80 Stat. 192, as amended, 80 Stat. 349, which both authorized the Secretary of the Interior to issue a quitclaim deed to the State for the entire federal interest in the lake properties and provided a mechanism by which the fair value of the federal interest could be ascertained. In consideration of the Secretary's deed, Utah was obliged either to pay the Federal Government an amount fixed by the Secretary or bring a lawsuit in this Court so that the extent of the federal claim could be judicially determined.

Utah and the United States, however, are not alone in advancing claims to the still submerged and now-relicted portions of the lake. Morton also claims part of the property, and seeks to intervene to quiet its title. Our Special Master's Report carefully sets out the nature of the competing claims of the two sovereigns and the private landlord:

"1. The State of Utah claims that on January 4, 1896, the date it was admitted to the Union, the Great Salt Lake was a navigable body of water. On the basis of this fact and the 'equal footing doctrine,' it asserts that it is the owner of the Lake's bed as delineated and determined by the official surveyed meander line and that the land (some 600,000 acres) left exposed by the recession of the Lake between

[ 394 U.S. Page 91]

     the water's edge and the meander line, known as 'public domain reliction,' is part of that bed. . . .

"2. The United States claims, excluding those exposed lands lakeward from the upland*fn1 transferred to patentees, title to a substantial portion (some 325,574 acres) of the exposed lands (known as 'public domain reliction' lands) claimed by Utah as part of the Lake's bed. The basis for this claim is that it was the original owner of the uplands and for that reason it is entitled to the exposed lands under the common-law doctrine of reliction.*fn2

"3. Private vendees or patentees of the Lake's uplands whose interest can be traced to the United States claim all the land lakeward fronting such uplands. Their claims do not stop at the water's edge but continue to the thread of the Lake. They contend that the patents impliedly passed title to the relicted land to the owner of the adjoining uplands. The combined area of the exposed land claimed by this group amounts to approximately 275,000 acres. Morton is a good example of one of this group.

"4. In addition, however, the United States also claims the relicted land fronting the uplands of some of the patentees (or those claiming through them) under the so-called Basart doctrine. The total area claimed under this doctrine is approximately 108,780 acres, and is ...


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