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U.S. Supreme Court

Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States, 243 U.S. 389 (1917)

Utah Power & Light Co. v. United States

Nos. 202-207

Argued October 11, 12, 1916

Decided March 19, 1917

243 U.S. 389


The power to regulate the use of the lands of the United States, and to prescribe the conditions upon which rights in them may be acquired by others, is vested exclusively in Congress.

The inclusion of such lands within a state does not diminish this power, or subject the lands or interests in them to disposition by the state

Page 243 U. S. 390

power, and therefore such lands, within a state, or ways across them, are not subject to be occupied or used for private or quasi-public purposes, under state laws, save such laws as have been adopted or made applicable by Congress.

The Act of May 14, 1896, c. 179, 29 Stat. 120, relating exclusively to rights of way and the use of land for electric power purposes, covering the subject fully and specifically and containing new provisions, was evidently designed to be complete in itself, and therefore, by necessary implication, superseded the provisions of Rev.Stats., §§ 2339 and 2340 (derived from the Acts of 1866 and 1870), insofar as they were applicable to such rights of way.

The legislation embodied in Rev.Stats., §§ 2339 and 2340, granted rights of way for ditches, canals, and reservoirs only, and did not cover powerhouses, transmission lines, or subsidiary structures.

Sections 18-21 of the Act of March 3, 1891, c. 561, 26 Stat. 1095, relate to rights for ditches, canals, and reservoirs for the purpose of irrigation and call for the filing of maps, to be effective when approved by the Secretary of the Interior; the Act of May 11, 1898, c. 292, 30 Stat. 404, permits the rights so approved under the Act of 1891 to be used for certain purposes, including power development, as subsidiary to the main purpose of irrigation; but neither act applies where no maps have been filed or approved, where the rights claimed include powerhouses, subsidiary buildings, and transmission lines, and where irrigation is neither the sole nor the main purpose of the use.

Whether or not the Act of February 15, 1901, c. 372, 31 Stat. 790, superseded other earlier right of way provisions, it obviously took the place of the Act of May 14, 1896, supra.

The Act of February l, 1905, c. 288, 33 Stat. 628, makes no provision for electric powerhouses, transmission lines or structures subsidiary thereto, the rights of way granted being only for ditches, canals, and reservoirs for diverting, storing, and carrying water.

The purposes for which rights of way may be obtained under the Act of February l, 1905, supra, viz., municipal or mining purposes and for milling and reduction of ores, do not include the generating of electricity for general commercial disposition, even though some part of the current is sold in adjacent or distant towns for power, lighting, and heating, or to persons engaged in mining, milling, or reducing ores.

The United States is neither bound nor estopped by acts of its officers or agents in entering into an arrangement or agreement to do or cause to be done what the law does not sanction or permit. So held

Page 243 U. S. 391

in regard to an alleged agreement for the use of federal lands by a power company.

As a general rule, laches or neglect of duty on the part of government officers is no defense to a suit to enforce a public right or protect a public interest.

If this rule has exceptions, they in turn are limited by the principle which places on different planes an ordinary private suit over title and a suit maintained by the United States to enforce its policy respecting land held in trust for all the people. Causey v. United States, 240 U. S. 399, 240 U. S. 402. The discretion of Congress to control the use of federal lands through administrative regulations is not narrowly confined.

Where such regulations exceed the power of or authorization by Congress, they may be disregarded as void, but not so where they are merely illiberal, inequitable, or unwise.

Parties whose occupancy and use of federal lands can be legitimated only by complying with the Act of February 15, 1901, supra, may not be heard to complain of the regulations adopted in its execution until they seek a license or permit under the act and conform, or appropriately offer to conform, to all of the regulations which are lawful.

The acts of Congress providing or recognizing that rights to the use of water in streams running through public lands and reservations may be acquired in accordance with local laws do not authorize the appropriation of rights of way through lands of the United States.

In a suit by the United States to enjoin unlawful occupancy and use of its reserved lands, compensation measured by the reasonable value of the occupancy and use, considering its extent and duration, should be included in the decree.

The compensation should not be measured by the charges prescribed for like uses by governmental regulations when the regulations have not been accepted or assented to by the defendants.

The case is stated in the opinion.

Page 243 U. S. 402

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