Nev. rancher awarded $4.2M for 'taken'
RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A judge awarded more than $4.2
million to a late Nevada rancher's estate after finding that the U.S. Forest
Service engaged in an unconstitutional "taking" of water rights out of
hostility to the rancher, a property rights activist.
The decision by U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Loren
A. Smith involved the Fifth Amendment clause against private property being
taken for public use without just compensation.
The rancher, Wayne Hage, bought the sprawling Pine Creek
Ranch in central Nevada in 1978.
In the early 1980s, the Forest Service began to notify
him he was in violation of his federal grazing permit. In 1983, the Forest
Service sent him 40 letters and agency officials made 70 visits to his
Smith, based in Washington D.C., said the cancellation
of Hage's grazing permit because of overgrazing and trespassing did not
violate the Fifth Amendment because a grazing permit is a license, not
However, Smith said, the taking occurred when the Forest
Service made it impossible for Hage to maintain irrigation ditches, which
deprived the ranch of water and made it unviable.
The government demanded that he maintain the ditches
using nothing more than hand tools. As willows, pinion, juniper and other
vegetation grew unchecked in the irrigation ditches, Hage had argued that his
ranch lost water.
"The court finds the government's actions had a severe
economic impact on plaintiffs and the governments' actions rose to the level
of a taking," Smith wrote.
Hage first filed a claim seeking $28 million in 1991. In
an interview in 2004, two years before his death, he told The Associated Press
his case could dramatically impact states' rights and federal lands in the
"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," he told The Associated
The judge noted that hand tools would not be effective
over such vast expanse of land. The ditches brought water to the 7,000-acre
ranch as well as the 700,000 acres of national forest land where Hage grazed
Hage "offered ample evidence that the Forest Service had
engaged in harassment toward (him), enough to suggest that the implementation
of the hand tools requirement was based solely on hostility to plaintiffs,"
Hage was one of the leaders of the so-called "Sagebrush
Rebellion" during the 1980s, a movement among Western landowners who believed
the federal government had no jurisdiction over their property because the
ranches predate the federal agencies that sought to regulate them.
The judge also ordered the government to pay back
interest to Hage's family. A lawyer estimated the interest dating to 1991
would be an additional $4.4 million.
"It sends a pretty important message to the government
that if you screw with a small ranching family and put them out of business,
you have to pay big bucks," said Lyman "Ladd" Bedford, a San Francisco-based
lawyer who argued the case since its beginning.
Ed Monnig, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National
Forest, said Tuesday there had been no decision made yet on whether to
"We're aware of Friday's court decision and our agency
is now considering the implications of this ruling and carefully weighing
options," Monnig said.
The Pine Creek Ranch is owned now by Hage's children.
Calls to them were not returned.
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