Property Rights and Wrongs

Article excerpt


In 1978, Wayne and Jean Hage purchased a 7,000-acre ranch in Nevada. With the ranch they acquired grazing permits on large tracts of public land and rights to water diverted from some of those lands. In accordance with their grazing permits and pursuant to their state-recognized water rights, the Hages constructed a variety of improvements, including several miles of pipeline, 298 miles of fence and 634 miles of roads and trails.

For its part, the government authorized the Nevada Department of Wildlife to release elk onto the Hage grazing lands, fenced waters owned by Hage to exclude cattle (but not Elk who can jump fences), made 70 visits to the Hage ranch and sent 40 letters alleging a wide array of mostly minor infractions of regulations, refused to renew some of Mr. Hage's grazing permits, prevented Mr. Hage from accessing public lands to maintain his water supply, prosecuted him (unsuccessfully) for trespass and twice impounded his cattle.

Mr. Hage filed a lawsuit in 1991 claiming his property rights had been taken without just compensation in contravention of the Fifth Amendment takings clause. Seventeen long years later, on June 6, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims decided the United States owes the estate of Wayne and Jean Hage $4.2 million. With interest and attorney's fees the total government bill will be several times that amount, but still it is not a lot of money for a government eager to spend more than $300 million on a bridge to nowhere.

But paying what would have been a much lower price to purchase Mr. Hage's rights in 1991 did not occur to the federal government. Instead it engaged in a 17-year legal battle that outlived the Hages. The government's purpose in this marathon was to prove that the Hages did not have the property rights they claimed. Lest Mr. Hage, who could not afford the cost to redeem his cattle, take advantage of the government, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Nevada Wildlife Federation and the Sierra Club all weighed in as amici curiae in support of the government's position.

There is no mystery why the nation's leading environmental groups weighed in against the Hages. …