A Century of Stewardship: Strawberry Valley Management Area

One of the most recent and significant land acquisitions to occur on the Uinta National Forest involved the Strawberry Valley Management Area. The acquisition represents the Uinta National Forest’s commitment to a philosophy of stewardship based on multiple use and ecosystem management. The lands in Strawberry Valley were transferred to the Forest Service against a unique backdrop of historical land ownership and management controversy. The following is a summary of the report entitled Strawberry: History of the “Pure Valley,” written by John Frandsen of the Heber Ranger District, Uinta National Forest in 1994.

In 1864, Strawberry Valley became part of the Uintah Valley Indian Reservation by order of President Abraham Lincoln which consolidated other reservations established in 1856 for the Utes and Gosuites. Federal Treaties were signed reserving these lands for the sole occupation and use by the tribes in exchange for their ancestral lands. The Indian Agency was established in the Uinta Basin and most of the Ute groups located around it to take advantage of rations distributed there. Strawberry Valley, nearly 50 miles from the Agency Headquarters, was less frequented by the Utes and thus vulnerable to trespass. By 1880, settlers in Heber Valley were trespassing onto the western edge of the Uintah Reservation and illegally grazing cattle in Strawberry Valley. In addition, military encampments were located in the valley, partially to show the Utes the military capabilities at hand should they cause problems for the settlers in the area.

In 1892, the Indian Office decided Strawberry Valley should be leased to the Heber Valley ranchers or others since the Utes didn’t actively graze the area and it would be too much trouble for the Indian Office to keep the trespassers out. The valley was eventually leased by the Utes, through the Indian Office, to Charles F. Homer of New York City. This had little effect on the trespassing situation however.

At the same time, Heber Valley ranchers were diverting water from the Strawberry Valley into Daniel’s Creek and Heber Valley. The canal was constructed between 1879 and 1882. In 1883, the Strawberry Canal Company was incorporated and the Hobble Creek ditch and Willow Creek canal were constructed, though the Willow Creek canal was not completed. In 1893, farmers and laborers from Heber Valley organized the Willow Creek Canal Company and completed the Willow Creek canal. By 1904, nearly 1000 acres were being irrigated wholly or in part by illegally diverted water.

Attempts had been made, however, to legitimize the diversion of water. In 1894, Joseph L. Rawlins attempted to secure a special act of Congress to make the diversion of water from the reservation legal. The bill stalled in committee, but Congress authorized a commission to negotiate with the Utes to relinquish ownership of all lands not allotted to the Utes under individual ownership. The Dawes Severalty Act gave each head of a Ute family an allotment of 80 acres and 40 acres to each individual. The remainder would be opened to non-Indian use. The commission never had time to meet with the Utes on the matter and the situation in Strawberry Valley remained unchanged. In 1898, another commission was appointed for the purpose of allotting lands in severalty but a majority of Ute consent would be necessary for the terms of the act to be carried through. Ute consent was not obtained and a stalemate ensued.

In 1896, Utah was granted statehood and Joseph Rawlins became Senator for Utah and continued in his efforts to obtain a right of way through Reservation lands for the canal companies. He finally succeeded in 1899 with an amendment attached to an Indian appropriation which gave the canal companies a right of way through Strawberry Valley with the condition that the Utes would be left with water they required for agricultural and domestic uses. Later, the U.S. Geological Survey was sent to investigate the situation and see if the Utes were getting water sufficient to cultivate crops. Cyrus C. Babb directed the investigation between 1899 and 1901 and reported on the illegally diverted water. His supervisor, F.H. Newell commented in the report that, though the water was illegally diverted, it did not cause any significant hardship for the Utes and was not serious enough to be considered a problem that warranted much attention.

In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt, a strong supporter of western irrigation and agricultural development, became President. Representative Francis Newlands of Nevada began to draft legislation that would solve most of the problems that previous water legislation had created. The result was the Newlands Bill which proposed to take money from the sale of public lands in the sixteen arid states and place it into a Reclamation Fund to be used by the Secretary of Interior to pay for new water projects. The bill was reworked into the National Reclamation Act and Fredrick Haynes Newell was named the first Director of the new Reclamation Service.

In 1902, a group of local officials in Utah County drafted a plan to divert even more water from Strawberry Valley into Utah Valley. The plan included the construction of a reservoir in Strawberry Valley and the construction of a four-mile tunnel to transfer the water to Utah Valley. The Strawberry Valley Project, as it came to be known, was pressed at the Utah Irrigation Congress, where Fredrick Newell suggested that Utah would have a better chance of getting Reclamation funding if the Irrigation Congress would decide on one reservoir plan and lobby for it. Newell suggested to the Arid Land Reclamation Commission, created by the Utah State Legislature, that they form an association of water users, who stood to benefit through the Strawberry project, that the government could interact with. By June of 1905, this new association would be incorporated as the Strawberry Water Users Association.

At about the same time, Senator Rawlins was introducing additional legislation in a continued effort to open up the reservation. Utah Representative George Sutherland argued that as no treaty with the Utes had ever been ratified, the reservation could be taken without negotiation or consent since the Utes were not the rightful owners. Congress once again authorized the Secretary of Interior to allot the land in the Severalty Act of 1902. President Roosevelt refused to sign the act because of its preference toward certain mining interests and its failure to give the Utes grazing land in connection with their allotment

The stalemate continued until 1903 with the Supreme Court decision Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock. This ruling stated that Congress had complete authority over Indian relations and therefore had power to pass laws which exceeded treaty stipulations. Immediately, Congress appropriated funds to carry out the 1902 severalty act and stated that if Ute consent could not be obtained, the Secretary of Interior could proceed to allot lands and open the reservation without it. This act addressed President Roosevelt’s concerns by providing 250,000 acres of grazing land located just south of Strawberry River. In 1904, acting Indian agent C.H. Hall requested the Indian Service to persuade Congress to change the location of the 250,000 acre grazing lands to the Deep Creek area because of the Reclamation Service’s plans to divert water into the Provo district. The date for opening the reservation was postponed until March 10, 1905.

Meanwhile George L. Swendsen, the Reclamation Service district engineer sent letters to the Reclamation Service, the Forest Service and the Indian Service requesting that they support setting aside Strawberry Valley as a reservoir site. The Forest Service was also interested in obtaining a portion of the Uintah Reservation. Chief grazing officer Albert F. Potter was sent by Gifford Pinchot to find land suitable for additional Forest Reserves and Potter had sited the Strawberry Valley as a possibility (See Appendix B for land acquired by the Forest Service when the Uintah Reservation was opened).

The opening date was postponed again, this time until September 1, 1905 and an act was passed in Congress allowing President Roosevelt to set land apart as an addition to the Uintah Forest Reserve and to set aside any lands necessary to protect the water supply “for the Indians or for general agricultural development.” The act also relocated the 250,000 acre grazing lands to the Deep Creek area as per Hall’s request.

In July of 1904, President Roosevelt issued a proclamation which set the opening of the Uintah Valley Reservation on August 28, 1905. On August 3, 1905, the president withdrew 200,633 acres from disposal for agricultural purposes and for a “reservoir site necessary to conserve the water supply for the Indians, or for general agricultural development.” On August 14, 1905, the President specifically reserved land for the Strawberry Valley Project. Other lands were opened for settlement under the terms of the Homestead Act. Potential settlers would file applications which were drawn at random for 160 acre parcels of Ute reservation land. In Provo, 37,702 people registered for a chance at the land. Strawberry remained unaffected by settlement as most of the valley lands were reserved through Roosevelt’s earlier proclamations.

When the Reclamation Act of 1902 passed, the demand for water projects far exceeded the capabilities of the Reclamation Service and the Reclamation Fund. Each western state would be entitled to a single project and the Strawberry Valley Project was chosen in the State of Utah, the first of many Federal water projects. This project was unique when compared to the projects funded by the Reclamation Service in other states because the lands that benefited from the Strawberry Valley Project were privately owned, where as other Reclamation projects provided water to “public domain” lands, opened subsequently to homesteading. Regardless, the Strawberry Project was chosen for Reclamation Support for several reasons. First, the formation of the Strawberry Water Users Association had given the Reclamation Service a cohesive group to work with. Second, the opening of the Uintah Reservation coincided with project approval. This freed up large amounts of unappropriated water and also made possible securing the reservoir site. Third, the project was smaller and simpler, making completion and repayment to the Reclamation Service more likely.

A contract with the Strawberry Water Users was entered into, signed by the Secretary of Interior on March 6, 1906 and preparatory construction began.

Horse-drawn machinery and wagons begin work on construction of Strawberry Reservoir.

Heber Valley ranchers who had grazed on the withdrawn lands before the Strawberry Project now requested to continue using the lands for grazing. The Reclamation Service had no precedent or statute to validate the legality of leasing the withdrawn land to the cattlemen. The decision was finally made by Assistant Attorney General Frank L. Campbell to allow the Secretary of Interior to lease the withdrawn lands at his discretion. On March 10, 1906, the Secretary decided to lease withdrawn lands to the highest bidder. By July, a contract was entered into with James Clyde, James Murdock, Davis Smith and Davis Murdock of Heber City for $10,408 per annum.

Horse-drawn wagons approaching and leaving dam construction site.The final cost of the project was estimated at $1.25 million, but by 1910, it was evident that real costs would exceed that figure. To complicate matters, the Indian Agent for the Utes began asking for lease money received from Strawberry Valley grazing. Though the land had been withdrawn from entry, the title still remained with the Utes. The Strawberry Water Users disputed the claim arguing that grazing fees should be used to repay project costs which, by then, almost tripled the original estimates. They asked Senator Sutherland to push a measure through Congress which would allow the Reclamation Service to purchase the grazing land as part of the reclamation project’s construction costs. Sutherland introduced the bill in 1910 and it failed. Two months later, he managed to attach an amendment to the Fiscal Year 1911 Indian Appropriations Act which read:

All right, title, and interest of the Indians in the said lands are hereby extinguished, and title, management, and control thereof shall pass to the owners of the lands irrigated from said project whenever the management and operation of the irrigation works shall so pass under the terms of the reclamation act (Act 4-4-1910, 36 Stat. 269).

While Sutherland’s amendment provided for the water users to assume “title,” management and control of the Project Lands, the Reclamation Act specifically indicated that title to reclamation works would remain with the Government unless Congress otherwise directed. Regardless, in the summer of 1912, the water users were informed, by Senator Smoot and State Senator Henry Gardener, that the title to 60,000 acres in Strawberry Valley was theirs. This arrangement allowed the water users to collect grazing revenues from project lands to cover project costs. The understanding of the water users was that the project would mean eventual title to the project works and the thousands of acres of withdrawn lands which surrounded them. Many others disagreed.

Under the high bid lease structure that was established, ranchers from Heber Valley were forced to pay the water users rents much higher than those on neighboring forest lands. Few rangelands were left un-stocked so Heber Valley ranchers had little choice. Because of the high rental fees, ranchers had to stock their allotments with as many sheep and cattle as they could to pay rental fees and still make a profit. This resulted in deteriorating range conditions early on.

In October of 1912, with construction on the reservoir and tunnel nearly complete, Newell sent a letter to the water users requesting a plan for repayment. Disputes arose among the water users over who would pay. The Secretary of Interior responded to the dispute by establishing a deadline for the settlement of the dispute and a feasible plan for repayment. The deadline, May of 1913, came and went and the Reclamation Service delayed taking any action.

By the summer of 1917, the reservoir was full and the Reclamation Service drew up a tentative contract to turn the care, maintenance and operation of the project over to the water users as specified in the Reclamation Act.

In April of 1922, George A. Fisher testified, on behalf of the Heber ranchers, before the House Committee on Public Lands in favor of Bill H.R. 10861 which proposed to pass all the project lands covered by the 1910 Act to the Uinta National Forest. Additionally, the bill would provide that 10 percent of receipts from the National Forest should be paid into the Reclamation Fund to reimburse the money paid to the Utes under the 1910 Act. This bill would repeal the 1910 Act to the extent that it was inconsistent with H.R. 10861. Fisher testified that Wasatch County ranchers had paid the water users $82,000 over the amount reimbursed to the Utes according to the 1910 payment contract. Because the lands had been paid for using this money, the land was free to be transferred to the Forest Service. This, in effect, would bring grazing fees down to what the ranchers could afford. Fisher further argued that Forest and project lands were divided entirely by section lines, having no real meaning in practical administration. He felt, as did others, that the watershed should be managed as a single unit by a single agency. The Forest Service was a perfect candidate for management as watershed protection was one of the agencies primary purposes. George Fisher argued that protection of the watershed could only be accomplished through proper management of grazing. This represented a goal that could not be achieved on any lands where the objective was to benefit from them financially.

The water users protested, claiming they had vested rights to the lands in Strawberry Valley. Senator Will H. King, who was asked by the water users to champion their claim, replied by stating that there were no legal rights granted to the water users. In a letter to sent to Lee R. Taylor, King stated:

The water users have not paid for the lands in the sense that they have bought them. The expense of extinguishing the Indian title was charged to their project, which replaced the title in the government free from all Indian claims for use of the project, to the extent required as a watershed, but for no other purpose.

H.R. 10861 was favorably reported overall by the House committee. However, a dissent report was filed by a minority. The bill was never considered beyond the committee stage.

In December of 1924, Congress passed the Fact Finders Act which changed the conditions under which management and operation were to pass to the water users. It stated that the water users would assume care, operation, and maintenance of the project works and facilities whenever two-thirds part of the Association members agreed to a repayment contract. Under this contract, the water users soon met the criteria for the transfer of management. But, the Fact Finders Act also provided that “title, management, and control” of the watershed lands were not to pass to the Association under the 1910 Act until at least 51% of project costs had been repaid to the Federal Government. These provisions were in seeming contradiction with one another. Regardless, the Government and water users entered into agreement to transfer care, operation and management to the water users.

In November of 1928, the contradiction was clarified by an amendment which explained that although 51% of the project costs had not yet been repaid, “care, operation, and maintenance” (management and control, but not title) of the watershed lands would be transferred to the Association.

Starting in 1926, the High Line Canal Company, or “Strawberry Grazing Company,” which was organized by Heber Valley ranchers, leased allotments on the Project Lands. In 1929 bids for new leases were open and applications to graze more than 100,000 sheep were placed by both Heber Valley stockmen and Association members. The carrying capacity was established at 25,000 sheep so the Association decided to provide allotments only to its members. Revenues from grazing on Project Lands were then credited toward the construction costs as per the 1924 Act. The Act stated that no profits could be distributed to members until the project costs had been fully paid. However, it was in the opinion of the Solicitor that the express prohibition of profit before repayment did not imply an authorization for profit distribution after payment. They did not feel profit distribution was what Congress had intended.

As a result of the 1928 amendment, the management of 60,000 acres was turned over to the water users. During the depression of the 1930's, revenues dropped off and the Association began to discuss options to lower Association costs with the Bureau of Reclamation. The Reclamation Projects Act of 1939 extended the repayment period for Reclamation Projects nationwide and a year later the water users were able to sign a new contract. This contract not only extended the repayment period, but redesignated the Project Lands as “grazing lands” instead of the former “watershed lands.” The 1940 contract also stated that title to the Project Lands and Reclamation works would remain with the U.S. Government even though management authority rested with the water users. In 1946, an Act was passed which stated that revenues generated by the project could not be distributed to individual water users before or after retirement of the project debt.

In the 1960's, the Central Utah Project was authorized. This meant the enlargement of Strawberry Reservoir and the subsequent loss of revenue generating grazing lands. The Strawberry Water
Users Association responded, in November of 1973, by filing suite against the Government for compensation for losses of future grazing revenues. The final installment of the $3,499,734.22 construction loan for the Strawberry Valley Project was paid in November of 1974. The same year, the Association filed suite against the Government to settle several important legal questions:

1) Where did title to the grazing lands actually rest?

2) Could it distribute profits to its members now that the construction loan had been repaid?

3) Did the Association have a right to be reimbursed for grazing land lost under the expanded Strawberry Reservoir in the Central Utah Project?

Based on the 1928 supplemental contract and the 1940 Amendatory Contract, the court decided the Association did not have an ownership interest in the Project Lands but did have a contractual right to do certain things with those lands. The Bureau also had rights and responsibilities to see that the land was managed as intended and if the lands were transferred to the Forest Service, that agency would be required to honor the contract with the water users.

Meanwhile, recreational use of Strawberry Project lands had been steadily growing. Formal recreation management in the area probably began in 1926 when the Association assumed control. At about the same time, the State was planting the reservoir with trout, but recreational fishing continued to be limited by fish losses. The fish were suffocated as a result of the decomposition of excessive organic matter in the reservoir and high temperatures which resulted from stagnation. Up until the 1960's, ranchers applied herbicides to willows along stream corridors to increase access to the water by livestock. This together with continued overgrazing on the watershed caused an increase in sediment run off and a decrease in the reproductive capabilities of fisheries. Sediments were carried into the reservoir, filtering ultra-violate light and upsetting the vegetation balances in the reservoir. Private fishing camps, leased from the water users, caused their own problems. Sanitation practices were substandard and raw sewage was often dumped into the reservoir, again upsetting the vegetation balance and increasing the decomposition of organic matter. Chubs and suckers out competed native species and in 1961, the entire reservoir had to be cleared of fish. Native species were restocked, but overgrazing and an increase in recreational continued. Recreation and grazing were two uses on a collision course in Strawberry Valley.

In 1975, the State Division of Health ordered all recreational facilities surrounding the reservoir closed for illegal sanitation. At the same time, Wasatch County began to criticize the water users for their fee collection system. In 1976, the Bureau of Reclamation prepared a recreation master plan for the enlarged reservoir. Discussion began as to who should manage the project lands and for what purpose. Discussion continued between Federal and State agencies and officials, environmental and wildlife groups, and the public. The decision was finally made to manage the lands for watershed protection, recreation, wildlife and fish values. It was decided that the Forest Service would assume management of the project lands. On October 16, 1988, Congress transferred management authority for the Project Lands from the Strawberry Water Users Association to the U.S. Forest Service, Uinta National Forest (See Appendix B for land transferred). This bill:

1) Gave management authority to the Forest Service for Project Lands by modifying the Forest Boundary.

2) Compensated the Strawberry Water Users Association for their grazing rights on the Project Lands.

3) Provided $3 million for rehabilitation of the Project Lands to be spent over a 5-year period beginning in 1990.

The Project Lands were also given a new title: Strawberry Valley Management Area. The entire Strawberry Valley watershed could now be managed as an ecosystem for the benefit of a diverse group of users. A massive effort was initiated by the Uinta National Forest to stabilize riparian habitats, rehabilitate fish habitats, seed the upland areas adjacent to riparian areas, control noxious weeds, consolidate the system of roads in the area, dismantle obsolete fences and monitor the restoration of the valley. Concurrent with these efforts was the treatment and restocking of the reservoir with native fish species. Today, Strawberry Valley is a destination spot for thousands of recreationists and one of Utah’s premier fishing areas. Other uses include timber harvesting and grazing under controlled conditions.