Concerns About Tradition of Public Access

I would like to see the governor or Congress appoint an independent panel of experts to study all aspects of this issue

By Dennis Brosten

The recent sale of 630,000 acres of Montana timberland to Southern Pine Plantations should stimulate a robust discussion of the troubled history of the land. As far as I know, virtually all of the land was part of the 1870 federal land grant to the Northern Pacific Railway. After 1987, part of the land was transferred in the following sequence: Burlington Resources, Plum Creek, Weyerhaeuser, and now Southern Pine Plantations. One of the obvious questions is: Do these land transfers erase the many violations of the original land grant? For example, the law stated that all the land not bound by the authorized mortgage was to be sold to the public at a rate less than or equal to $2.50 per acre within five years of the completion of the railroad. The Northern Pacific was completed in 1883 and laid claim to a checkerboard pattern of land 80 to 120 miles wide across the state of Montana. This swath reached out to the coast and totaled about 45 million acres, nearly as big as Washington state! Many politicians had a financial interest in the railroad including President Ulysses Grant, future President Rutherford Hayes, and numerous congressmen who were given loans or stock. It sure looks like a classic case of corruption from the Gilded Age in America.

The value of the land far exceeded the cost of rail construction. The land grant was excessive and soon the public learned of the matter. In 1888 the U.S. Congress passed resolution 9151 which would have taken back about three quarters of the Northern Pacific grant due to numerous violations of the original terms of the grant. However, the Senate never acted on H.R. 9151 and the railroad held on to the land into the next century.

Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover started investigations of the retained lands. Coolidge learned that it cost $70 million to build the railroad. But by 1924 the limited sales of patented lands had already yielded $136 million while the railroad still claimed 40 million acres. Coolidge could easily compare the Northern Pacific windfall to the fact that the nearby Great Northern Railroad was built without any land grant at all. Subsequently, the Hoover administration filed a suit against the Northern Pacific in 1930. The suit alleged many violations in the original terms of the grant. After 11 years the case was settled with an astonishing agreement that allowed the railroad to keep 39 million acres! Congress never ratified the settlement. Some legal scholars say Congress had the right to modify or reject the 1941 settlement as well as the 1988 split with Burlington Resources.

Plum Creek lands, which were part of the grant, were long available to hunters and sportsmen free of charge. Over the years much of the land was gated but still open to people willing to hike. I wonder how much of the 39 million acres will still be available to the average sportsman a decade from now? What was the intent of the House and Senate when the grant was approved in 1870? I would like to see the governor or Congress appoint an independent panel of experts to study all aspects of this issue. What is the best use of this land? Can Congress still intervene or use eminent domain to remedy the situation?

For more information on this topic go to www.landgrant.org or the book “Railroads and Clearcuts” available on that website or from Amazon (used copies).

Dennis Brosten

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