Back in 1962, Elaine Neilson of Richfield, Utah, and her husband bought at a Sevier County tax sale 120 acres covered with oak, pine and grass where they built a summer cabin.
Because tax-sale deeds normally supersede all other titles to land, the Neilsons didn't suspect Congress had placed a legal time bomb on tens of thousands of similar acres in the West that would end up taking Neilson's life savings and that land."She's 81 years old now (and a widow), and just has her home in Richfield and her Social Security pension. The government essentially got the land without paying a cent for it," says her son-in-law, Wayne Hansen, Orem.
Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, is trying to correct what he says is a 93-year-old government mistake that hurt Neilson and others.
Essentially, an 1897 law promised equal swaps of land with people owning property in newly formed national forests if they would first hand over their deeds. The trouble was that after the government received the deeds, it never approved giving anything in return in many cases.
Original property owners and their heirs - or others who unwittingly bought the land in tax or other sales - often eventually had the land and improvements taken without payment. Garn's bill would now force the government to pay for the land or give back clear title.
But the Bush administration opposed it strongly in a Senate hearing this week, claiming it would give away land that the government has often long managed. But it conceded that some individual land owners may deserve some relief.
Garn said Neilson's case is an example of the "harsh inequity" shown by the government over land it proposed to trade for through the 1897 law.
The Neilson land is 14 miles north of Fish Lake on Mount Terril and is within the boundaries of Fishlake National Forest. Hansen said the owner of the land back in 1904, W.E. Moses Land Scrip & Realty, deeded it over to the government in promise for an equivalent amount of acreage elsewhere.
The government never provided that other acreage. Sevier County eventually placed the original property back on the tax rolls. In 1919, the county took the property for unpaid taxes.
Then decades later in 1962, the Neilsons bought the property by paying the back taxes. "They sold 80 of the 120 acres to other people who wanted to build summer homes. They kept 40 acres and divided it among their children. They paid taxes on it every year," Hansen said.
Then five years ago, the Forest Service said it owned the land and persuaded the Sevier County assessor to remove it from the tax rolls. Other people who had bought part of the Neilson land and their title company hired a lawyer demanding back the money they paid to Neilson plus reimbursement for improvements.
Hansen said the sales money had long since been spent by his mother-in-law. "But she paid $120,000 to settle the claims." He said although the Forest Service is claiming it owns the 120 acres, it has allowed the Neilson family to use the cabin for 10 years.
Upsetting to Hansen is that the Forest Service often hasn't gone after similar land held by more powerful people or organizations, such as Brigham Young University. "They just came down on us and left a little family without clear title to the land."
A coalition of landowners in similar situations testified Wednesday that 27,507 acres of land in the West have similar problems, with 1,880 acres of that in Utah.
Larry Henson, associate deputy chief of the Forest Service, said the Bush administration opposes Garn's bill because it would force the government "to pay fair market value for lands that have been protected and administered . . . for public purposes for over 85 years and provide a potential windfall to the current claimants at the taxpayers' expense."
Garn countered that if the administration has its way, the government "received a massive windfall of 27,500 acres of land without one cent of compensation to the original grantors or their successors in interest."
Henson also said the government offered to take care of the situation with a 1960 law offering $1.25 per acre for the land plus interest, although landowners said they figured requirements to process such claims would cost them $20 an acre.
Garn said, "Potential claimants apparently were not interested in that losing proposition, since only one person ever filed a claim under the act and his application was rejected."
Henson said the government is willing to try to give relief to some land holders on an individual basis without the need for Garn's bill, which will likely have to be re-introduced next year anyway because it is too late this session to proceed far.