Light v. United States
220 U.S. 523 (1911)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Light v. United States, 220 U.S. 523 (1911)

Light v. United States

No. 360

Argued February 27, 28, 1911

Decided May 1, 1911

220 U.S. 523

Syllabus

United States v. Grimaud, ante, p. 220 U. S. 506, followed to effect that Congress may authorize an executive officer to make rules and regulations as to the use, occupancy and preservation of forests and that such authority so granted is not unconstitutional as a delegation of legislative power.

At common law, the owner was responsible for damage done by his livestock on land of third parties, but the United States has tacitly suffered its public domain to be used for cattle so long as such tacit consent was not cancelled, but no vested rights have been conferred on any person, nor has the United States been deprived of the power of recalling such implied license.

While the full scope of § 3, Art. IV, of the Constitution has never been definitely settled, it is primarily a grant of power to the United States of control over its property, Kansas v. Colorado,206 U. S. 89; this control is exercised by Congress to the same extent that an individual can control his property.

Page 220 U. S. 524

It is for Congress and not for the courts to determine how the public lands shall be administered.

Congress has power to set apart portions of the public domain and establish them as forest reserves and to prohibit the grazing of cattle thereon or to permit it subject to rules and regulations.

Fence laws may condone trespasses by straying cattle where the laws have not been complied with, but they do not authorize wanton or willful trespass, nor do they afford immunity to those willfully turning cattle loose under circumstances showing that they were intended to graze upon the lands of another.

Where cattle are turned loose under circumstances showing that the owner expects and intends that they shall go upon a reserve to graze thereon, for which he has no permit and he declines to apply for one, and threatens to resist efforts to have the cattle removed and contends that he has a right to have his cattle go on the reservation, equity has jurisdiction, and such owner can be enjoined at the instance of the government, whether the land has been fenced or not.

Quaere, and not decided, whether the United States is required to fence property under laws of the state in which the property is located.

This Court will, so far as it can, decide cases before it without reference to questions arising under the federal Constitution. Siler v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co.,213 U. S. 175.

The Holy Cross Forest Reserve was established under the provisions of the Act of March 3, 1891. By that and subsequent statutes, the Secretary of Agriculture was authorized to make provisions for the protection against destruction by fire and depredations of the public forest and forest reservations, and to

"make such rules and regulations and establish such service as will insure the objects of such reservations -- namely, to regulate their occupancy and use and to preserve the forests thereon from destruction."

26 Stat. 1103, c. 561; 30 Stat. 35, c. 2; Act of Congress February 1, 1905, 33 Stat. 628, c. 288; 7 Fed.Stat.Ann. 310, 312, and Fed.Stat. Ann.Supp. 1909, p. 663. In pursuance of these statutes, regulations were adopted establishing grazing districts on which only a limited number of cattle were allowed. The regulations provided that a few head of cattle of prospectors, campers, and not more than ten

Page 220 U. S. 525

belonging to a settler residing near the forest might be admitted without permit, but, saving these exceptions, the general rule was that "all persons must secure permits before grazing any stock in a national forest."

On April 7, 1908, the United States, through the district attorney, filed a bill in the Circuit Court for the District of Colorado reciting the matters above outlined, and alleging that the defendant, Fred Light, owned a herd of about 500 cattle and a ranch of 540 acres, located two and a half miles to the east, and five miles to the north, of the reservation. This herd was turned out to range during the spring and summer, and the ranch then used as a place on which to raise hay for their sustenance.

That between the ranch and the reservation was other public and unoccupied land of the United States, but, owing to the fact that only a limited number of cattle were allowed on the reservation, the grazing there was better than on this public land. For this reason, and because of the superior water facilities and the tendency of the cattle to follow the trails and stream leading from the ranch to the reservation, they naturally went direct to the reservation. T he bill charged that the defendant, when turning them loose, knew and expected that they would go upon the reservation, and took no action to prevent them from trespassing. That, by thus knowingly and wrongfully permitting them to enter on the reservation, he intentionally caused his cattle to make a trespass, in breach of the United States property and administrative rights, and has openly and privately stated his purpose to disregard the regulations, and without permit to allow, and, in the manner stated, to cause, his cattle to enter, feed, and graze thereon.

The bill prayed for an injunction. The defendant's general demurrer was overruled.

His answer denied that the topography of the country around his ranch or the water and grazing conditions were

Page 220 U. S. 526

such as to cause his cattle to go on the reservation; he denied that many of them did go thereon, though admitting that some had grazed on the reservation. He admitted that he had liberated his cattle without having secured or intending to apply for a permit, but denied that he willfully or intentionally caused them to go on the reservation, submitting that he was not required to obtain any such permit. He admits that it is his intention hereafter, as heretofore, to turn his cattle out on the unreserved public land of the United States adjoining his ranch to the northeast thereof, without securing or applying for any permit for the cattle to graze upon the so-called Holy Cross Reserve; denies that any damage will be done if they do go upon the reserve, and contends that if, because of their straying proclivities, they shall go on the reserve, the complainant is without remedy against the defendant at law or in equity, so long as complainant fails to fence the reserve, as required by the laws of Colorado. He claims the benefit of the Colorado statute requiring the owner of land to erect and maintain a fence of given height and strength, in default of which the owner is not entitled to recover for damage occasioned by cattle or other animals going thereon.

Evidence was taken, and, after hearing, the circuit court found for the government and entered a decree enjoining the defendant from in any manner causing, or permitting, his stock to go, stray upon, or remain within the said forest or any portion thereof.

The defendant appealed and assigned that the decree against him was erroneous; that the public lands are held in trust for the people of the several states, and the proclamation creating the reserve without the consent of the State of Colorado is contrary to and in violation of said trust; that the decree is void because it, in effect, holds that the United States is exempt from the municipal laws of the State of Colorado, relating to fences; that the statute

Page 220 U. S. 527

conferring upon the said Secretary of Agriculture the power to make rules and regulations was an unconstitutional delegation of authority to him, and the rules and regulations therefore void, and that the rules mentioned in the bill are unreasonable, do not tend to insure the object of forest reservation, and constitute an unconstitutional interference by the government of the United States with fence and other statutes of the State of Colorado, enacted through the exercise of the police power of the state.

Page 220 U. S. 534

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