Watt v. Western Nuclear, Inc.

RESPONDENT: Western Nuclear, Inc.

DOCKET NO.: 81-1686
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 462 US 36 (1983)
ARGUED: Jan 17, 1983
DECIDED: Jun 06, 1983

Harley W. Shaver, III - on behalf of the Respondents
John H. Garvey - on behalf of the Petitioners

Facts of the case


Media for Watt v. Western Nuclear, Inc.

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 17, 1983 in Watt v. Western Nuclear, Inc.

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in Watt against Western Nuclear, Incorporated.

Mr. Garvey, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

John H. Garvey:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court:

The issue in this case is whether gravel deposits which are susceptible to commercial exploitation are reserved to the United States under the Mineral Reservation and the Stock-Raising Homestead Act.

Respondent, Western Nuclear, owns a uranium mine about 12 miles south of Jeffrey City, Wyoming, a company town where its workers live.

It also mills the uranium a mile or two northeast of the town.

From the time in the early 1950s when Western Nuclear first located in this area, it acquired gravel for its various needs in Lander, Wyoming, about 65 miles away, and in Casper, Wyoming, about 85 miles away.

In 1975, finding that method of acquisition a little expensive, it acquired part of some land about a mile north of Jeffrey City where there was a deposit of gravel.

Respondent thereafter mined about 43,000 cubic yards of gravel from that deposit, or about 60,000 tons, which it used for making cement to line the sides of its mineshafts, for concrete aggregate for lining the streets and the sidewalks in Jeffrey City and for building roads on which to haul its ore.

The land on which the gravel deposit was located had been patented in 1926, under the Stock-Raising Homestead Act.

Warren E. Burger:

At that time had the modified definition been reached by the Interior Department?

John H. Garvey:

It was in 1929 that the--

Warren E. Burger:


John H. Garvey:

--Department of the Interior decided Layman against Ellis.

The Homestead claim which was at stake in Layman against Ellis had been first located in 1925.

When the Bureau of Land Management learned of the appropriation of the gravel deposit, it informed respondent that its appropriation of the gravel was a trespass against the mineral interests of the United States reserved under the Stock-Raising Homestead Act and, after undertaking an appraisal of the property, concluded that respondent was liable in the amount of $13,000 for royalties for the gravel taken.

William H. Rehnquist:

Mr. Garvey, was this the first time that the government had brought such an action against claimant or user of gravel under the Farmers and Stockmen's Act... Stockmen's Homestead Act?

John H. Garvey:

To my knowledge, it was the first such action, although I should say that the history of the government's enforcement of this... of these rights is a little like what Mark Twain said about Wagner's music, it's actually better than it sounds.

Until 1955 these kinds of gravel deposits were not sold but were locatable under the Mining Act of 1872 and they--

William H. Rehnquist:

Until when?

John H. Garvey:


And so anybody who wanted to acquire these deposits could just go on the land and take them with... after making accommodations with the homesteader.

After 1955, in fact, in 1957, promptly after the Common Varieties Act, which permitted sale of these deposits was passed, the Solicitor of Interior in a Solicitor's opinion addressed to the Director in Denver said that passage of this act shouldn't be understood to have relinquished the government's interest in gravel deposits on Stock-Raising Homestead Act lands.

All that the Common Varieties Act did was to change the method of disposal from location to sale.

And although it's difficult to say to what extent the people seeking gravel deposits on Stock-Raising Homestead Act lands actually get permission of the Department because of the way the records are kept in the resource area... there isn't any... there isn't any separate line on the form that they fill out to say what kind of lands gravel deposits are taken from... I notice that in the Trujillo case, on which respondent in the Court of Appeals relied, that the State of New Mexico in 1971 had acquired a permit from the Bureau of Land Management to acquire gravel deposits on Stock-Raising Homestead Act lands.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well, I suppose a lot of holders of land patented under the Stock Raisers Act simply go ahead and use the gravel, or have in the past, on the assumption that it's not a mineral.

John H. Garvey:

That's entirely possible.

And it's also the case that the enforcement resources of the Bureau of Land Management are not such that they are able to police the use that's made of these deposits.

William H. Rehnquist:

So, so far as you know, from the time of 1916, when the Stock Raisers Act was passed, until the bringing of this action was the first time the government had ever brought an action in court asserting that it retained title to gravel because it was a reserved mineral under the Stock Raisers Act?

John H. Garvey:

So far as I know, that's correct.