It was already hot on June 17, when Bob Learzaf got up. He latched his screen door, put the chain-latch on the front door, and left it ajar while he went to take a bath, and get ready to go to work. He was alone in his Pittsburgh apartment.
He heard voices at his door, hushed, excited voices. Then came a rapid, loud knock on the door.
“Who’s there?” Bob shouted.
“Come to the door! Come to the door, now!”
“Who is it? What’s going on?” Bob shouted, as he clambered out of the bathtub, reaching for a towel.
“Come to the door, now. Federal Marshals!”
“I’m taking a bath, let me get some clothes on.”
“No, you must come to the door immediately!”
Bob heard the chain-latch snap, and running footsteps. He emerged from the bathroom, clad only in a towel, to find seven federal marshals in his tiny living room, one of whom was a woman. Seven, armed federal marshals to apprehend this … this, criminal?
“Tell the woman she has to leave, this is not a peep-show,” Bob protested.
“We’re here because you failed to appear in court.”
“What court?” Bob asked.
Bob’s protestations were ignored. The marshals proceeded to examine the apartment, including Bob’s wallet, and other personal items.
“I’ve got guns in this apartment. I want you to know that.”
Bob collects flint-locks, and keeps a loaded .45 by his bed, which a marshal quickly found.
“Stay out of my stuff; you don’t have a search warrant. Put that gun down, it’s loaded,” Bob demanded.
The marshals let Bob put on a pair of shorts. They cuffed him, put him in leg-irons, and took him to jail.
No one read him his rights. No one showed him a warrant. No one cared what he had to say. After sitting in jail for two hours, someone slipped a warrant under his cell door. He was charged with: “Maintaining any kind of road, trail, structure, or other improvement on National Forest system land without a special use authorization,” a criminal offense subject to six months in jail and a fine of $5,000.
He had never received a notice to appear in court. The prosecutor could not produce a notice of service at the preliminary hearing. The judge released him on his own recognizance with a new court date set for July 8.
Bob’s troubles began 20 years before he was born. His great-uncle Mel Sojanski bought Iron City Junction from the Iron City Lumber Company, on Oct. 16, 1923. Bob has the original bill of sale, which identifies “all the buildings and land comprising Iron City Junction of the Iron City Railroad.”
The building on the land was the railroad office. Uncle Mel had cut and fitted the stones for the building’s foundation, chimney and porches, when he was a young man, in the late 1890s. Iron City Junction was where several narrow-gauge rail lines converged. Steam locomotives pulled cars loaded with logs to the junction where they were off-loaded and hauled to the mill. When the railroad no longer needed the facility, Uncle Mel and some relatives bought the place for $150 “cash-in-hand paid.” From the beginning, it was to be used by the family as a hunting and fishing camp.
In 1928, the federal government “acquired” the remaining lands of the Iron City Lumber Company. Government representatives called on Uncle Mel to give him the good news. Yes, the government recognized the bill of sale, but because Uncle Mel’s land was now surrounded by federal land, and because there were no real surveys, the government required a “special use permit,” that only cost $3 per year. Uncle Mel trusted his government — no problem.
Until 1976. Uncle Mel was no longer on the scene. Bob’s father and two uncles were in charge. The Forest Service presented them with a new “special use permit,” which “supersedes permit #19, dated November 19, 1928.” The new permit came with three pages of conditions. Condition 29(a), on the last page of fine print, says the permit would not be renewed upon termination on December 31, 1996.
When 1996 rolled around, Bob was the man in charge of the family’s Iron City Hunting & Fishing Club. The Forest Service knocked on his door and said “you must vacate the property and burn your cabin.”
“Why would I do a crazy thing like that?” Bob asked. “My family has owned this land since 1923.”
The Forest Service issued a notice of violation on June 16, 1997. In the space labeled “court appearance,” are the hand-written words “To be notified by court.”
Bob went first to the District Ranger, and then to the Director of the Allegheny National Forest, John Palmer, with his bill of sale. “We’ve got a problem here I think we can solve. Here’s the original bill of sale my Uncle Mel got when he bought the place in 1923.”
“That’s not worth a thing. You don’t have a claim. You’ve got to remove the building and leave,” was Palmer’s reply.
Bob found an attorney. “Wow, I can’t believe this,” says the attorney. “They’re charging you with a criminal violation. This is a civil matter. It’s an ownership dispute.”
The attorney arranged for two postponements, with the court supposed to notify Bob’s attorney when a new date was set. Time passed. No word about a court date. Bob called his attorney who advised him to let a sleeping dog lie. He did, for more than a year. But on June 17, the sleeping dog awoke, broke in his front door, and hauled him off to jail.
Bob is not a wealthy man. He can’t afford a battery of attorneys to counter the tax-paid attorneys on call for the Forest Service. He appeared in court on July 8 without an attorney. The prosecutor tried for 45-minutes before court to talk Bob into pleading no-contest. No jail time, a small fine, and it’ll all be behind us, the prosecutor said.
“Will I still have my land?”
The judge postponed the case again, advising Bob to get an attorney. He has to appear again on August 17. He is no closer to finding an attorney who will take the case without money.
In 1976, when the Forest Service issued the “20-year, no-renewal permits,” there were 193 private land owners in northwest Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Forest. Bob is the last.
It may be just a coincidence that 1976 is the same year that the United States signed a United Nations policy document which declared “Public (read: government) control of land use is indispensable.” It was the decade of the “Federal Land Use Planning Act,” unsuccessfully promoted by Morris Udall. It was the decade of Rachel Carson, and the birth of the modern environmental movement. The United Nations Environment Program was an infant, and just beginning to preach its gospel of government land use control.
It is no coincidence that by 1996, agencies of the federal government were not interested in talking to anyone about property rights, especially people who owned small parcels surrounded by federal land. People have been driven out of the forests of the northwest. People are being removed from private property, one way or the other, from one end of this country to the other. With little fanfare, and less publicity, people like Bob, who don’t have the resources to fight the feds, are being steam-rolled into submission or thrown into jail — or both.
“We never missed opening day of trout season,” Bob recalls. As a boy, he and his sisters, Carolyn and Barbara, his father, uncles, and cousins spent most of the summer, hunting, fishing, and enjoying the fruits of Uncle Mel’s purchase. Towering white and blue spruce trees planted by Uncle Mel, now stand guard over the stones he cut for the foundation, and the cabin, covered with wormy-chestnut slabs, milled nearly a century ago.
A century of family, of place, of identity, which should be passed on the next generation, means nothing to the Forest Service, or its commander. The government wants the land; the government takes the land. If the landowner is a millionaire, and doesn’t mind spending his fortune on attorneys, and has several years to waste, the landowner might be able to keep his land, or at least get paid for it, if he lives long enough to get the case to the Supreme Court. But most victims of government greed are like Bob, hard-working individuals who just want to be left alone. They have neither the wealth, nor the stomach, to fight the very government that was created expressly for the purpose of protecting, not taking, their property.