Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Appeals court quashes rancher's claim on grazing land

The state Court of Appeals has thrown out a bid by a Southern Arizona ranching company to get title to land where its predecessors had grazed cattle for more than a century.

Without dissent, the three-judge panel rejected arguments by attorneys for Robinson Cattle that it was entitled to possession of thousands of acres that was deeded over to the state by the federal government in 1991. The court specifically rejected the company’s claim of vested property rights.

At the heart of the battle is land that became federal government property in 1853 when it got the parcel along with other lands pursuant to the Gadsden Treaty with Mexico. Judge William Brammer Jr., writing for the appellate court, said no competing claims had been asserted under Mexican law.

The federal government took the land out of public domain in 1902 to become the Santa Rita Forest Preserve.

Before that happened, though, Robinson’s predecessors had entered the parcel and later began grazing it. One predecessor even obtained title to a 160-acre homestead within the parcel.

Robinson eventually got the homestead and possessory rights to the parcel. And the company has continued to graze cattle on the parcel in a series of cooperative agreements with the University of Arizona, which manages what is known as the Santa Rita Experiment Range for research purposes.

When the last agreement was not renewed, UA sent Robinson a letter terminating its right to occupy the land.

The state then filed an action seeking clear title. Robinson filed a counterclaim, also seeking title.

When a trial judge dismissed Robinson’s claim without trial, he appealed.

Robinson says it is entitled to ownership of the parcel. That is based on an argument that, under local law and customs, and “pursuant to laws of Congress,’’ its predecessors obtained title to the property — and that its rights vested before the parcel was reserved by the federal government.

Brammer said that argument is flawed.

“Only Congress can authorize rights in public lands,’’ he said.

“Although the United States has allowed persons, sometimes called settlers, to graze livestock on public domain, such permission only gave rise to an implied license,’’ the judge continued. And Brammer said the federal government could revoke that right at any time, with no vested right to those who had been grazing cattle there.

What that means, Brammer said, is any “local laws and customs’’ that Robinson claims entitle the company to the property exist only if Congress authorized those rights explicitly. And the judges said an 1866 law that Robinson cited only acknowledges water and ditch right-of-way rights created under state law.

The judge also pointed out that when the federal government gave the land to Arizona, there were no reservations about any rights belonging to Robinson or any predecessor. More to the point, Brammer said, if the federal government considered Robinson the owner of the parcel, it never would have granted title to the state.

The court sidestepped the question of whether Robinson can access any water rights or improvement on the parcel without the state’s permission. The judges said he may have such rights but that needs to be decided through an administrative appeal to the proper state agency.

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