The Finish Line in Sight for Landmark Hage v. U.S. - Closing Arguments Heard in Takings Case for Nevada Rancher

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ItÂ?s been nearly fourteen years since Nevada rancher, Wayne Hage and his late wife, Jean, filed their takings case against the United States. On Thursday, October 21, 2004, ranchers from at least five states crowded into the small courtroom and spilled out into the hallway to hear the closing arguments in this landmark case being heard by Judge Loren Smith of the U.S. Federal Claims Court.

It’s been nearly fourteen years since Nevada rancher, Wayne Hage and his late wife, Jean, filed their takings case against the United States. On Thursday, October 21, 2004, ranchers from at least five states crowded into the small courtroom and spilled out into the hallway to hear the closing arguments in this landmark case being heard by Judge Loren Smith of the U.S. Federal Claims Court.

Wayne Hage is no stranger to the courts. From the time Hage purchased Pine Creek Ranch in 1978 until he filed the takings case in 1991, Hage spent countless hours fighting the BLM and the Forest Service over his water and grazing rights. The mission of the government agencies was clearly to reclaim the use of the federal lands that Hage had permits on, by whatever means necessary, including fencing off Hage’s springs and the eventual confiscation of his cattle.

During the three weeks takings trial held in Reno last May, Judge Smith heard how Hage purchased the property rights when he bought Pine Creek Ranch and how he created additional property rights through range improvements. The evidence proved that Hage had patented parcels of land totaling about 7,000 acres, water rights in seven streams confirmed by the Nevada state engineer, underground water located all over the ranch, 1866 ditch rights-of-way which were purchased with the ranch for conveyance of water for irrigation and stock and range improvements such as water tanks, pipes and troughs, fences, spring improvements, ditches, corrals, cow camps, roads and trails.

Throughout the first trial, the Judge also heard how the government’s actions harassed and interfered with Hage to the point at which this profitable ranch was no longer a viable economic operation. Without notification, the Forest Service introduced a small herd of elk onto one of Hage’s primary grazing allotments in 1979. By 1990, the allotment was overrun by the ever-growing elk herd and Hage’s allotment numbers had been either cancelled or suspended to the point at which the allotment was unusable for the ranch’s livestock operation.

On the brink of bankruptcy, Hage filed suit in 1991, choosing to fight for his constitutional rights. In an earlier case, the Court found that Hage did, in fact, own the rights to the water, the ditch rights of way and the forage adjoining the ditches. Based on that decision, the Courts must now decide whether the government took those rights from Hage and if so, how much compensation Hage is due for the takings.

A summary of the value of the ranch, as presented by Hage’s attorneys, was $23,979,000, which includes $12,000,000 for the water rights alone. The government suggested a value of $1,500,000, slightly more than what Hage paid for the ranch over twenty five years ago. Hage’s attorney pointed out that should the government acquire the ranch at their suggested price, they would have an immediate gain of $12,000,000 in the 20,000 acre feet of water alone.

Judge Smith issued an admonition to counsel to explore every possibility of a settlement and scheduled a telephone conference to discuss such on November 18, 2004. If no settlement is announced, or if counsel cannot report any real possibility of settlement, Judge Smith will then begin to put together his decision in this historic case.

Ranchers and other landowners across America are anxiously awaiting the outcome of this historical case as many have similar circumstances facing aggressive environmental agendas and federal agency policies that threaten their property rights and for some, their livelihood.

A complete case history and detailed trial reports are available online at http://www.stewardsoftherange.org .

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Margaret Byfield
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