Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 06-C-348-S-John C. Shabaz, Judge.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Circuit Judge.
Before EASTERBROOK, Chief Judge, and FLAUM and KANNE, Circuit Judges.
At issue in this lawsuit are Bayfield County's ("the County") ongoing efforts to convert unused railway lines in the County into snow-mobile trails. As the legal basis for its plans, the County alleges that the United States retains a reversionary interest in these railroad right-of-ways and that Congress has established that, pursuant to this reversionary interest, if the railway lines are formally abandoned, local governments are then provided with a one-year window with which to establish a public highway if they so choose. 43 U.S.C. § 912; 16 U.S.C. § 1248(c). Local landowners ("Landowners"), who have been using these old railway lines as their own, took preemptive measures and filed a quiet title action seeking declaratory relief against the County and the United States, claiming that the United States had not retained a reversionary interest over these particular railway lines, and, in the alternative, that the land had vested in the Landowners because the one-year period from the date of abandonment had already lapsed. The district court never made a determination on these claims. Instead, the United States filed a Disclaimer of Interest in the property. See 28 U.S.C. § 2409a(e). The district court then determined that, even assuming that the United States retained a reversionary interest and the railway lines had not been abandoned, the Disclaimer of Interest had the same effect as eliminating the United States's reversionary interest, which the court classified as a necessary predicate for the County to have any interest in the railway lines. Accordingly, the district court found for the Landowners. For the following reasons, however, we vacate the grant of summary judgment for the Landowners, vacate the quiet title finding in the Landowners' favor, and remand for further proceedings.
A. Grants to the Railroads
In the 1850's and 1860's, Congress passed a series of laws granting tracts of land and right-of-ways for purposes of constructing railway lines. Particularly relevant to this case are Acts enacted on August 4, 1852; June 3, 1856; and May 5, 1864. See ch. 80, 10 Stat. 28, 28-29 (1852); ch. 43, 11 Stat. 20, 20-21 (1856); and ch. 80, 13 Stat. 66, 66-68 (1864). The parties agree that the railroad's property interest in the railway line traversing the property owned by Samuel C. Johnson 1988 Trust and Imogene P. Johnson ("SC Johnsons") was originally acquired by the railroad via the 1856 and 1864 Acts. This is because those Acts governed odd numbered sections of property, which would include the SC Johnsons' land, located at Section 21, Township 44 North, Range 7 West in Bayport County. The parties are in disagreement, however, as to whether the United States maintained a reversionary interest in this land. According to the Landowners, the 1856 and 1864 Acts vested the title of fee simple absolute with the State of Wisconsin, which then in turn transferred this full property interest to the railroad companies. See 1874 Wis. Sess. Laws ch. 126, § 1. The County, however, argues that the Western District of Wisconsin and this Court have already found that the United States retained a reversionary interest in odd-numbered sections of Bay-field County granted to the State of Wisconsin for the purpose of constructing railroads under the 1856 and 1864 Acts. Mauler v. Bayfield County, 204 F. Supp. 2d 1168, 1176 (W.D. Wis. 2001); Mauler v. Bayfield County, 309 F.3d 997, 1001 (7th Cir. 2002).
Also in dispute is the United States's reversionary interest in the parcels of land owned by John and Kay Hawksford ("Hawksfords") and Dean and Kathryn Johnson ("DK Johnsons"), which lie in an even section-specifically, Government Lot 2 of Section 32, Township 44 North, Range 7 West, in Bayfield County. According to the Landowners, railroads seeking rights of way in even-numbered sections generally obtained this interest through private conveyance or condemnation on a parcel-by-parcel basis. With respect to the property in Section 32, the Landowners maintain that a private home- steader initially acquired title to the property in 1882 by patent from the United States, without the United States retaining any reversionary interest. Approximately seven months later, the state condemned a portion of this property, completely outside any federal land grant program.
The County disagrees with the Landowners' characterization of the property interest over the railway line in Section 32. The Act of 1852 granted a right-of-way to railways "charted within ten years hereafter" on the United States's public lands, with construction then needing to be completed within the next fifteen years. Ch. 80, § 1, 10 Stat. 28 (1852). The County maintains that the railway line in Section 32 is covered by this Act because, even though construction on the line did not begin until the mid-1870's, the railroad filed a map with the Land Office in 1858 that showed the intended railway line. The County argues that court decisions have not required railroads to have strictly complied with statutorily imposed time limits, and that thus, with the Act of 1852 applying here, the United States retained a reversionary interest in the property. According to the County, the 1882 land grant to the homesteader and subsequent state condemnation proceeding did not affect the United States's reversionary interest in the railway line.
B. Congress's Scheme for the United States's Reversionary Interests
The basis for finding that the United States holds a reversionary interest in the railway lines can be traced back to a 1903 Supreme Court decision, where the Court characterized railroad grants as a "limited fee, made on an implied condition of reverter in the event that the company ceased to use or retain the land for the purpose for which it was granted." Mauler, 309 F.3d at 1001 (quoting Northern Pacific Ry. Co. v. Townsend, 190 U.S. 267, 271 (1903)). Subsequently, in 1922, Congress passed the Abandoned Railroad Right of Way Act, 43 U.S.C. § 912, which addressed how Congress wished to dispose of its reversionary interest. Id., at 999. Section 912 provided that when a railway line was declared abandoned by a proper court or by Congress, the United States's reversionary interest would vest in the adjacent landowner, unless the abandoned line was converted into a public highway within one year of the declaration of abandonment. 43 U.S.C. § 912.*fn1 At approximately the same time, Congress also passed another law permitting the railroads to sell their right of way to state or local governments to establish public highways.*fn2 Pub. L. No. 66-217, 41 Stat. 621 (enacted in 1920, codified at 43 U.S.C. § 913). In an effort to preserve these abandoned railway lines for use as trails, Congress amended § 912 in 1988. 16 U.S.C. § 1248(c). Under this amendment, abandoned railway lines would no longer pass to the adjacent landowner, but instead the United States would retain title to the property, provided again that the line was not converted to a public highway within one year of a determination of abandonment.*fn3 Id.
C. Dissolution of the Railway Line
In addition to disputing whether the United States maintained a reversionary interest in these railway lines, the County and the Landowners also dispute whether the railway lines have already been abandoned in accord with § 912 and § 1248(c). In 1974, the Chicago & North Western Transportation Company filed a Notice of Proposed Abandonment with the Interstate Commerce Commission ("ICC") with respect to the portion of railway line running through Bayfield County that is relevant to this case. Then, in 1978, the ICC issued a Certificate and Order permitting the abandonment of the railway line. One month later, in April 1978, the railroad cancelled its tariffs on the line, and in 1980, the railroad pulled up the tracks. In November 1979, soon before the tracks were pulled up, the County had declined an opportunity to purchase this right-of-way.
According to the Landowners, the railway line was abandoned in accord with the terms of § 912 in either 1978 or 1980,*fn4 while the County contends that a proper declaration of abandonment has not yet been issued. Regardless, while the County disputes the validity of the following actions, on March 4, 1980, the railroad executed a quitclaim deed purporting to convey its interests over all the property at issue to the SC Johnsons. The SC Johnsons then donated the majority of these lands to the Forest Service, while retaining some of the land for ...