AR-News: Storm over rangelands conitnues in claims court
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Sat May 8 18:14:47 EDT 2004
Storm over rangelands conitnues in claims court
By SCOTT SONNER
Associated Press writer
RENO, Nev. -- After battling U.S. land managers for more than two decades,
rancher Wayne Hage thinks he's closer than ever to proving the government
robbed him of water and grazing rights on a stretch of Nevada range more
than two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.
"What we're talking about here is how the government -- working with the
environmentalists -- took the property from me," Hage said Tuesday during a
break in the latest round of his case before the U.S. Court of Federal
"This ruling could have a dramatic impact on Western state's rights and the
proper jurisdiction of federal lands in the West," he told The Associated
Press. "It's the first time in nearly a century that someone has effectively
challenged the government over who owns the range rights and water rights
out here on these federal lands."
The federal court has set up temporary shop in the Washoe County courthouse
in Reno for the next three weeks to hear the latest phase of the lingering
dispute between Hage, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management over
property rights, water rights and livestock grazing on federal land.
Hage has been arguing with the government since the Forest Service started
scaling back the number of cattle allowed to graze on national forest land
in the early 1980s.
Ranchers and their families from New Mexico, Idaho and South Dakota were
among those who filled the courtroom for Hage's testimony on Monday and
"We've been following this for 13 years," said Frank Duran, president of the
Stewards of the Range based in Meridian, Idaho, which has helped Hage with
some legal assistance.
A lawyer for the government said in opening remarks Monday that Hage lost
the privilege to graze on the lands because he continually broke the law,
repeatedly trespassing cattle on public lands after being warned to remove
"There is no sinister plot here, no conspiracy," said David Spohr, a Justice
Department lawyer representing the two federal agencies.
"If anything, the federal agencies were too soft. They allowed too many
violations to go on for too long," Spohr said. "He believes this entire
752,000 acres has been set aside entirely for his use."
U.S. Claims Court Judge Loren Smith ruled in Washington D.C., in 2002 that
Hage had a right to let his cattle use the water and forage on at least some
of the federal land where he formerly held a federal grazing permit north of
Tonopah, in central Nevada.
The government says the ruling applies to 50 feet on each side of 10
different irrigation ditches built before 1866 -- an area Spohr estimates
covers about three-tenths of 1 percent of the range in question.
Hage, who is married to former U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage of Idaho,
insisted Tuesday the ruling applies to "the entire ranch" -- about 1,100
That issue, addressed in Smith's original ruling, could be headed to a
federal appeals court for resolution.
Smith ordered this week's evidentiary hearing to determine if the government
must compensate Hage for what he says was an illegal "taking" under the
Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.
"We're not here to question whether the government could do what it did. The
question is, could the government do what it did without compensation?"
Hage, 67, a longtime state's rights activist who wrote "Storm Over
Rangelands," maintains the government imposed overly restrictive
environmental regulations on the land to drive cattle ranchers like himself
out of business.
He filed a claim seeking $28 million in damages in 1991 after Forest Service
officials suspended his grazing permits on parts of the Humboldt-Toiyabe
National Forest, saying overgrazing was causing ecological damage on the
Hage said the water rights came with the Pine Creek ranch when he bought it
for about $2 million in 1978 and those rights carry with them the right to
the associated forage.
"If you don't have the water rights, you don't have a ranch," he said.
When the Forest Service impounded 78 head of his cattle and suspended his
grazing rights, the agency destroyed his livelihood, he said.
"We were broke. The Forest Service was telling our lender I was a terrible
person and I didn't know how to run a ranch and was breaking all the Forest
Service rules," Hage testified.
"One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a child is to kill or
torture an animal and get away with it" Margaret Mead.
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