Man-splitting-logs-with-axe

The owners of rights to over 138 million tons of coal on 12,000 acres of land, known as Hall Ranch, in Wyoming outside Gillette, recently learned that, in addition to not being able to mine the coal, they also will receive no just compensation for the taking.

In 1977, Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), which restricts, and sometimes flat-out bars, surface mining in certain environmentally sensitive areas. In 1985, the Wyoming Department of Natural Resources—which has permitting authority under the Act—determined that Hall Ranch coal fell within the scope of SMCRA. As allowed under the Act, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offered to enter into a land exchange to compensate the owners for their lost mining rights.

But those negotiations fell through. Recently, in 2010, the landowners reopened negotiations for an exchange, but those negotiations again fell through over valuation of the coal, which BLM valued at $0 in one analysis. The Hall Ranch owners then sued for a taking in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the Government promptly moved to dismiss, arguing that the claim was time-barred.

The Court agreed, stating that it is well-established that a taking claim accrues “when all the events have occurred which fix the liability of the Government.” Here, the Court noted that the Hall Ranch owners admitted that “sometime in 1985,” they were informed that the Hall Ranch coal fell within the prohibited mining areas under SMCRA. The Court stated:  “At that point, there was no question about how SMCRA applied to the Hall Ranch.” And, that the parties had engaged in negotiations over a land exchange did not ripen the taking claim because the exchange transaction is merely “a method of ascertaining and paying just compensation for a taking.” The Court also rejected Hall Ranch’s argument that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled, stating that under the Tucker Act, the time-bar is jurisdictional and cannot be equitably tolled.

Read Judge Hadji’s full decision here.