A Ranching Tragedy
Over the last 22 years, we have read about the Wayne Hage case with the government, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Books have been written about the case and, of course, numerous newspaper and magazine articles. As we have read all of this over the years, we have all expressed much sympathy for the family as Wayne, his wife Jean and others family members have passed on, and now the battle is left to a son Wayne N. Hage to fight as executor of the estate. Some rays of sunshine have developed lately in one judge’s ruling.
On May 24, a ruling was announced by Nevada Federal District Court Judge Robert Jones. According to local news reports, “The judge, in a scathing 104-page opinion, found Hage cattle had in fact trespassed on federal land and ordered son Wayne N. Hage to pay damages of $165.88.”
Now remember, there are other cases ongoing, one of which is a Fifth Amendment “takings” case that is under appeal in the U.S. Supreme Court, scheduled to be heard later this month. Four years ago, a lower federal court awarded the Hages $2.9 million for the takings of their water rights under the Fifth Amendment and $1.4 million in statutory compensation for improvements made in connection with the revoked grazing permit. Later an appellate court overruled the decision, and this month it goes before the Supreme Court.
The important part of Judge Jones’ ruling is that he blasted the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for behavior that “shocks the conscience” of the court. He went on to accuse federal officials of entering into “a literal, intentional conspiracy to deprive the Hages, not only of their permits, but also of their vested water rights.” During the course of the long legal battle, according to Judge Jones, the government invited others to apply for grazing rights on allotments held by the Hages, applied with the Nevada State Engineer for its own watering rights in a effort to interfere with the Hages’ rights, and then issued trespass notices and demands for payment to witnesses soon after they testified in this case. In the ruling, the judge ordered Hage to apply for a grazing permit and for the federal agencies to grant it. He also enjoined the government from issuing trespass or impound notices to Hage.
One of the tragedies of this whole case has been the length of it and how it has consumed the lives of the family. E. Wayne Hage bought the ranch in 1978 near Tonopah, Nev. It was a typical Nevada public lands ranch operation, with 7,000 of private acres, grazing permits for 752,000 acres of federal land and water rights. In 1986, Hage stopped applying for special use permits to maintain his water sources and ditches on federal land, arguing he had an “absolute right” under Nevada water law to maintain them, and in 1991, the Forest Service twice impounded Hage’s cattle. When he couldn’t get them back by paying the cost of impoundment, the government auctioned them off for $39,000 and kept the proceeds. That is when Hage filed the suit claiming a “taking.”
This is a ranching tragedy.