Views From The Secretary
Some people think the "Old West" is
a bygone era. They are wrong. All the best of
it lives in the hearts of people like Wayne Hage
and his wife Helen Chenoweth-Hage.
Never heard of them? Wayne is the
Nevada rancher who fought the federal government
over water rights on his ranch for more than
twenty years. Helen is a former Idaho
Congresswoman who married Wayne in 1999.
The whole thing started back in
1978 when Wayne found and bought the ranch of
his dreams. As it turned out, some federal
officials were dreaming of the same place and
wanted it for a park or wilderness area.
owned the place only about two months before
federal officers tried to "buy" it for about
half of what he paid. Maybe there are people
dumb or scared enough to take such an offer, but
not in the West. The fight was on.
of what Wayne bought was vested water rights and
related improvements on leased federal lands
surrounding his private tract of 7,000 acres.
All the government wanted to pay for was his
figured they could get the rest away from him
without paying for it. The federal officers
proceeded to make life difficult for him and
even filed competing water rights claims. They
were wrong about water rights.
Water rights are traditionally established by
state law and governed by state law. They could
take away his lease by simply not renewing it,
but the water rights and related improvements
were property, under state law.
However, in the process of proving that (over
the course of ten years of legal battles), Wayne
was forced to sell his herd.
one sense, you could say the government
officials won. They outlived Wayne and they put
him out of business, but they didn't win. If
you do an internet search on Wayne's name, you
will find it on 199,000 pages. Many of the
leaders of the states' rights and property
rights organizations of America knew him
person from the East once asked, "Why is it that
only the Western States fundamentally grasp the
concept of states' rights?" The reason we
understand is simple. Everyday we look at a
mountain, a valley, a field or stream and know
who gives us our rights. We also know that
Congress has only the rights we choose to give
them and no others.
States' rights and property rights are
everything. They are the foundation of our
nation and we still understand and respect that
foundation. We also know that anyone has only
the rights for which they are willing to fight.
The rest is just paper.
Wayne said, "Either you have a right to own
property, or you are property."
Wayne is not gone. Old ranchers never really
die. They just go to seed. New life will
spring from the seeds he planted.
Editor's note: This is
third in a series of weekly columns from
South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Larry
Gabriel sent to weekly newspapers for
distribution the following week. This column
and all previous columns are also available at
the following website:
South Dakota Department of Agriculture
523 E Capitol Ave
Pierre, SD 57501-3182
Phone: (605) 773-6503 e-mail: