Underlying [literally] this whole Spiral Jetty situation is the fact that Smithson constructed the Jetty on so-called sovereign land, the land under a body of water–in this case, Great Salt Lake–that is claimed by the state under Public Trust doctrine. Obtaining a state lease to build Spiral Jetty warrants only a passing mention in Smithson’s written account of the project, but it turns out to have rippled through the project over time in ways I’m not sure the artist anticipated. And it brings into the work these kind of odd/fascinating concepts that date back to civilization’s earliest attempts to establish a relationship of control over the earth.
In case you think I’m being too hyperbolic, check out this introductory explanation from the most recent draft of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Land’s Great Salt Lake Comprehensive Management Plan, the major policy and administrative initiative currently being developed, which will guide state management of the Lake for a decade or more:
1.1.2 The Public Trust over Sovereign Lands
Under A.D. sixth century Roman law and perhaps earlier, the air, sea, and running waters were common to all citizens and the separate property of none. All rivers and ports were public, and the right of fishing was common to all. Any person was at liberty to use the seashore to the highest tide, to build a retreat on it, or to dry nets on it, as long as they did not interfere with the use of the sea or beach by others. Although the banks of a river could be privately owned, all persons had the right to bring vessels to the banks, to fasten them by ropes, and to place any of their cargo there. The influence of Roman civil law carries forward through English common law to today’s Public Trust doctrine, which recognizes the special public interest in rivers, lakes, tidelands, and waters.
There’s also this explanation from the previous page:
Under English common law, the crown held title to all lands underlying navigable waterways, subject to the Public Trust doctrine. Following the American Revolution, title to such lands in the United States vested in the 13 original colonies. Under the Equal Footing doctrine, fee title to those lands also vested in each state subsequently admitted to the Union, upon admission. Utah-owned navigable waterways, known as ―”sovereign” lands, lie below the ordinary high water mark of the waterbody. These lands are referred to as Public Trust lands. The boundaries of sovereign lands are established by the location of the ordinary high water mark of a waterbody. For the ocean and most rivers and lakes, the ordinary high water mark is relatively constant and can be identified reliably from year to year. Because rivers and streams establish many important boundaries and can move over time, the common law doctrine of reliction and accretion holds that slow, gradual movement of a river or stream course over time will result in relocation of the property boundary to follow the movement. Sudden changes in course, as by flooding or other upset, will not result in the relocation of the property line.
In 1959, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) challenged the state’s claim to much of the shoreline of the lake, arguing that the declining lake level was resulting in the reliction of shore lands and the relocation of the boundary between state and adjacent federal land, to BLM’s advantage. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the state owns all of the lands, brines, and other minerals within the bed and waters of the lake and all shore lands located within the officially surveyed meander line.
[Emphasis added for the parts which, when considered in light of Smithson’s interest in entropy and the scale of geologic time, are particularly awesome.]
I actually hadn’t thought about the meander line and reliction, and I hadn’t noticed the protracted legal battle between Utah and the federal government for ownership of the lake until just tonight. That’s when I came across a small article in the “Diggin’s” section of Survey Notes, a quarterly newsletter published by the Utah Geological and Mineral Survey. [The cover story of the Aug. 1979 issue (PDF) detailed the results of Amoco’s test drilling in the West Rozel oil field that lies under the Lake just offshore from Spiral Jetty.] That article, titled, “Who Owns Utah Lake?” is about a lawsuit between the Army Corps of Engineers and the state over a boat ramp in Utah Lake, near Provo:
The legal dispute is reminiscent of the 10 years of litigation which ended in Utah’s ownership of the Great Salt Lake and subsequent oil and gas leasing and exploratory drilling.
Which, ten years? if you start at 1959, that’s 1969, right up to Smithson’s arrival. Or go back a decade from the 1967 Supreme Court decision, and Spiral Jetty appeared smack in the middle of the court battle.
I think Smithson’s overriding concerns for building a Spiral Jetty were formalist; it needed to be a red-tinted salt lake. Plus it wasn’t Bolivia, and it was available. The depleted atmosphere created by the varied pieces of abandoned oil drilling equipment were a bonus. But the land under Spiral Jetty, and Great Salt Lake as a whole, turned out to be a site where the interpretation of ancient constructs of law, politics, and sovereign ownership were being hotly contested at the moment Smithson came along.