History of Land Ownership

Questions regarding the appropriate role of government power over persons and property have existed for centuries. Such questions are particularly complex when they involve the overlapping and, at times, conflicting roles of federal, state, local and tribal governments on matters relating to Indian reservations. The Gay Mine, where FMC obtained phosphate ore, is located on land that is owned by the Tribes and individual Tribal member allotees. The land where FMC’s elemental phosphorus plant operated is located on fee land, which means that FMC is the owner of the property. The ownership status of land, whether it is Indian-owned or non-Indian owned, is very significant for purposes of tribal jurisdiction.

The private ownership of land on the Fort Hall Reservation during the period now known as the “Allotment Era” resulted in a substantial amount of Reservation tribal and trust lands passing into fee status and eventually out of tribal ownership. This has resulted in a “checkerboard” pattern of fee-owned and tribal-owned parcels on Reservations nationwide. The Fort Hall Reservation is unusual in that a large percentage of the Reservation, over 97%, remains in Tribal ownership or trust status. The large percentage of Tribal ownership can be attributed to multiple factors:

  • the relatively late land allocation date of 1911;
  • the proximity of the Union Pacific Railroad to the Reservation;
  • the town site of Pocatello that is now located in what used to be the southeastern portion of the Fort Hall Reservation, and;
  • the semi-arid climate that made irrigation a prerequisite to any farming activities.

The largest area of fee land on the Fort Hall Reservation not owned by Tribal members is in the area around the FMC plant and Pocatello airport.

Although the Dawes Act, passed by Congress in 1887, marks the beginning of the “Allotment Era,” it was an agreement among the Shoshone, Bannock and Lemhi Tribes with the Federal government, dated May 14, 1880, that provided for the initial allocation of land at Fort Hall . Under that agreement, 160 acres of grazing land and 160 acres of farming land was to be allotted to each Indian in accordance with the Indian’s selection. That agreement was not ratified by Congress until many years later, February 23, 1889. Also during that time, it became apparent that without irrigation, much of the arable land could not be successfully farmed. Thus, on March 3, 1891, Congress authorized and appropriated funds to construct an irrigation canal that would be capable of irrigating much of the land in the Snake River Valley. Unfortunately, there were difficulties finding a firm capable of that kind of work, and the irrigation system that resulted was essentially a failure.

At the time that the Fort Hall Reservation allotment legislation was being passed by Congress, there was substantial pressure from settlers who were arriving in greater and greater numbers in the region. In 1882, the federal government and the Tribes agreed to a right-of-way for the Union Pacific Railroad, with land for adjacent railroad facilities. The town site of Pocatello became used as a junction, which in turn created demand for land in the vicinity.

After a series of lengthy negotiations and tentative agreements by the Tribes and the Federal government, there was a final agreement ratified by Congress on June 6, 1900 that transferred over 400,000 acres out of the Fort Hall Reservation in exchange for a payment to the Tribes of $600,000, which today equates to approximately $90 million. At that time, the 1900 Census recorded 1587 inhabitants of the Fort Hall Reservation. The funds included earmarked funds for a school and surveying work for the allotment. The remainder—approximately $525,000— was distributed to Tribal members. Having seen the failure of the first attempt to construct an irrigation system, the Tribes refused to agree to set aside funds for that purpose.

June 2, 1902 became known as the “Pocatello Land Run Day.” On that day, settlers were given the opportunity to stake claims to individual parcels of land that had up until that time been off-limits Reservation territory. As a consequence of the sale of Reservation land to the settlers and the rapid growth of the City of Pocatello, which became the second largest city in Idaho after Boise, there emerged a unique situation where there was high demand on and near the Reservation for agriculture. It was not until 1911 that Congress passed legislation that resulted in Fort Hall allotments and irrigation.

From the time that allotments were made on the Fort Hall Reservation, many recognized that leases also could be made. With a ratio of 20 acres farming land to 160 acres grazing, the prospects for grazing were significantly better than farming, which, for most Indians had not been done on a large-scale with irrigation systems. Ranching became a thriving economic business for both Indians and non-Indians on the Reservation. Non-Indians leased parcels that remained Tribally-owned, and the federal government collected and passed on the rental income to the Indian beneficiaries of the leases. Thus, allottees received income either from rental payments or from their own farming operations.

Overgrazing was a common problem and the federal agents issuing the leases failed to adequately regulate the leaseholders or police trespassers who were grazing animals in unauthorized areas. As a result of the overgrazing, valuable grasslands in the foothills were left bare, which caused erosion that was harmful both to the vegetation growing on them and to the crops growing in the valleys. Over many areas, sagebrush grew in place of the grasslands, and the foothills and other areas became scrubland.

By the 1930s, a number of allotment parcels had been transferred to non-Indian ownership. A 1930 Forest Service report described land use on the Fort Hall Reservation as: 400,000 open range areas, consisting of 9,000 acres tribal grazing reserve winter pasture; 45,000 tribal timber reserve; 85,000 acres unallotted grazing lands; 240,000 acres allotted grazing lands; and 21,000 alienated acres. The Indian Service (BIA) chronically allowed overgrazing, which in turn was detrimental to the quality of the grazing land and irrigated fields below the foothills. Gradually grassy foothills were transformed to sagebrush covered scrub, which was not good for grazing.

In the early 1940’s, the US government claimed for wartime purposes the area that is now the home of the Pocatello Airport. After the war was over, the airport was transferred to the City of Pocatello to maintain as a municipal airport. Before and during World War II, a number of land parcels surrounding the railroad right of way came into private ownership as a result of sales from their Indian owners to non-Indians. During the same post-war period when the City acquired the airport, FMC (through its predecessor, Westvaco) bought the first of a series of parcels on the Eastern Michaud Flats that would become the largest elemental phosphorus plant in the world. The plant would come to directly employ over 500 people, and obtained its ore from the Gay Mine, where an additional 75 people worked.

By the time FMC bought the plant site property in 1948, the land had already passed from Tribal ownership through ownership by several non-Indians. It was also immediately adjacent to the J.R. Simplot fertilizer plant that began production in 1944.