Rancher Wins Fight for Rights: Rancher Wayne Hage's Decade-Long Struggle for His Property Rights Resulted in a Significant Victory This Year in the United States Court of Federal Claims. (Cover Story - Land Grab)

By Hage, Wayne | The New American, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Rancher Wins Fight for Rights: Rancher Wayne Hage's Decade-Long Struggle for His Property Rights Resulted in a Significant Victory This Year in the United States Court of Federal Claims. (Cover Story - Land Grab)


Hage, Wayne, The New American


On January 29, 2002, the United States Court of Federal Claims handed down a decision promising to have a widespread impact on the debate over western lands and property rights in general. It also has much to do with government accountability and the federal land management agencies that, under the color of law, have been carrying out a campaign of unlawful actions to harass ranchers and drive them off of their own lands.

The decision of Senior Judge Loren Smith resulted from over 10 years of litigation in an action entitled Hage v. U.S. The circumstances leading to the ruling on January 29th began when I purchased Pine Creek Ranch in central Nevada in June of 1978. The ranch includes a base property of 7,000 private deeded acres acquired by my predecessors under the Homestead Acts over a century ago. Like most ranches in that area, it also includes thousands of adjoining acres where our family owns water and grazing rights. These private grazing allotments were initially acquired by the pioneers who harnessed the resources and later transferred as deeded property to those who own them today. In 1866, Congress recognized western water rights previously established under local law and custom on the federal lands. Numerous state laws and court cases extended and solidified those rights.

The federal government dominates the 11 states west of the 100th meridian, with agencies like the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management controlling vast expanses of "federal" lands. However, the federal government does not possess complete ownership of these public lands. Ownership is divided in what is known as the "split estate": Various entities, both governmental and private, own water rights, grazing rights, mineral rights, and timber rights. I paid for and own the surface water, ground water, and grazing rights on my allotments. In the arid expanses of the West, it takes a lot of acres to feed a cow and water is as precious as gold. Without those water and grazing rights, my family's ranch and all others like it will cease to exist. For many years now, federal agencies and their environmentalist allies have been pretending that these genuine property rights are nonexistent, that our grazing and water rights are mere "privileges," completely subject to bureaucratic whim and regulation. T his represents a major assault on the very concept of property rights, which is absolutely essential to liberty.

Dream Come True

Owning a ranch like Pine Creek had been a dream of mine since boyhood. I was born in Elko, Nevada, and grew up with ranching. During the hard winter of '51 and '52, many ranchers, some of them my relatives, were desperate for help. So, I convinced my parents to allow me to drop out of high school, providing that I'd come back and finish up school after helping out on the ranches. But after I got out on the range there was no turning back. At that time, the big cattle outfits would put out a roundup wagon and they'd just stay out on the range for maybe 10 months of the year. For a teenage boy that kind of life -- riding horseback on the open range -- was an adventure that made school pretty dull and uninteresting by comparison, so I just stayed with it.

During a four-year stint in the Air Force I learned that I had some academic ability as well as horse sense. I came out at the top of all my classes, learned a lot about electronics and made up my high school with a G.E.D. test. After getting out of the service I went back to ranching, while also pursuing further education. I earned a degree in organic chemistry and a Master's degree in livestock nutrition (with a minor in economics) from the University of Nevada. I figured that my combination of schooling, practical experience, and determination would enable me to successfully operate my own ranch. My wife Jean and I started with a small ranch in northern California, just over the Nevada line. …

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