Metropolitan News-Enterprise


Thursday, March 19, 2009


Page 11



Commissioner Groff Rebuts AG Office’s Conclusions




The federal government in the latter part of the 19th Century wanted a socialist enclave in Central California—known as the “Kaweah Colony”—suppressed. In contravention of that desire on the part of the administration of President Benjamin Harrison, the principled and plucky U.S. land commissioner, Lewis A. Groff, after going to California to investigate, submitted a report to Interior Secretary John W. Noble proclaiming that the colonists were victims of injustice.

That report was submitted on Feb. 25, 1891. By the middle of the next month, Groff was cleaning out his desk, his resignation going into effect March 20, That brings me to the point where I left off last week.

Rebuffing Groff’s conclusion that the colonists, having settled the land, were legally entitled to the grants they had applied for—five years before Congress acted on Sept. 25 and Oct. 1, 1890 to include the acreage within Sequoia National Park—a statement by Noble declares:

“Since the very inception of certain of these claims to the lands in question in October, 1885, it has been asserted that the same were fraudulent, and it must be assumed that Congress acted with a full knowledge of all the facts in the case; at all events, its action in disposing of the lands is final.”

The soundness of the decision to create Sequoia National Park—the nation’s second national park and the first in California—cannot be doubted…but the motivation in appropriating those 12,000 acres that were part of land settled with the expectation of gaining title to it, pursuant to law, is suspect. Given the five-year run-around the colonists encountered after applying for their land grants, it’s highly suspect.

The report by Groff—a pioneering forest conservationist—contradicts news accounts of the colonists greedily downing giant redwoods for profit. It says:

I place little credence upon newspaper rumors that the members of the “Kaweah Colony,” or any other persons, are cutting down and removing the “giant trees” from these lands or otherwise damaging or destroying them. The parties who write the articles probably have never visited the lands nor been within a hundred miles thereof and consequently can have no actual knowledge of the common presumption which they boldly record as a fact.

It is undoubtedly true that the parties referred to have cut down and appropriated ordinary sawlog and smaller trees from the land, but so far as this office has any information, up to the present time, they have only appropriated such trees as were actually necessary for their own buildings, improvements, etc., and have not cut any for sale or disposal. They have certainly not cut down any “giant trees,” the minimum size of which the special agent reports as 45 feet in circumference—as they cannot safely be felled by any of the ordinary methods in use and no ordinary sawmill could manufacture them into lumber or other timber product.

The former Nebraska judge took issue with the view of the Office of Attorney General, saying:

I have read carefully the opinion of the Assistant Attorney-General as to the legal status of the timber-land applications filed by members of the Kaweah colony, and others, upon the lands now covered by the reservation. He holds “that parties who have not made entries of said lands, but have merely made filings thereon, and are cutting timber therefrom, should be considered trespassers and removed from the reservation,” and does not approve of either of the methods suggested by this office with a view to the final disposition of the filing of records, viz, to order hearings to establish the question as to their bona fides, or to reject the filings, subject to appeal.

The decisions cited by the Assistant Attorney-General, while they relate to filings in general, do not appear to fully cover the particular cases in question. There seems to have been some element in each case cited foreign to the case now under consideration. There was some question as to the status or character of the lands; or some adverse right or claim had attached or was in dispute; or the claimants had not complied with all of the requirements of the law. None of these questions are at issue in the present cases. The lands surveyed were unappropriated and uninhabited public lands, valuable chiefly for timber, and subject to entry under the act of June 3, 1878…; the claimants filed their applications, submitted proof, tendered the purchase money, and in every way complied fully with all the requirements of law.

Groff called it the way he saw it, and lost his spot in the Harrison administration. The unsettling thought is that he might have advanced in national politics had he played the game.

He didn’t, and is to be respected as a lawyer who, in the capacity of a federal official, put the duty to accord due process and equal protection over personal political advancement.

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