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Hage saga shows government at worst

Editorial, Capital Press 12/3/09

The case of Nevada rancher Wayne Hage should serve as a warning to all farmers and ranchers who depend on the cooperation of the federal government to make a living.

What Hage and his family went through during 30-plus years of fighting with the government can best be described as a nightmare.

Hage's 7,000-acre ranch borders several allotments of the Toiyabe National Forest. In the 1970s, the government introduced elk into the forest, damaging fences and scattering cattle.

From there, the relationship between the rancher and the government spiraled downward.

The government impounded his cattle and cut off access to his water pipelines, ditches, fences, roads and trails on the grazing allotments.

The dispute simmered for decades and made Hage a de facto leader of the "Sagebrush Rebellion" among similarly mistreated ranchers across the West.

In 1991, Hage sued the federal government in an attempt to regain access to the national forest grazing allotments.

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims agreed with the government that the cattle were trespassing.

However, in 2008, the court also agreed with Hage's lawyers that the government had taken his water rights, ditch rights-of-way, roads, water facilities and other structures. As compensation, the court ordered the government to pay Hage $4.22 million.

It a final act of petulence, the government went back to court and asked the judge to reduce that award. The government claimed there was no proof that Hage had built the fences, trails, pipelines and other facilities. He could only be compensated if he could prove he had built the facilities.

Since Hage had died in 2006, the government's lawyers apparently thought they had a good chance of escaping from the damage it had done to Hage and his family.

They were wrong.

In a final twist, Senior Judge Loren Smith turned the government's request on its ear. Instead of reducing the judgment, he added $150,000 to the $4.22 million already awarded.

The willingness of the federal government to go to extremes in an effort to put a rancher out of business is despicable. With time and the taxpayers' money on their side, government lawyers have continued to turn the screws on the Hage family.

The result is the saddest chapter in the history of the U.S. Forest Service.

In a previous decision, Judge Smith described the Hage saga as a "drama worthy of a tragic opera with heroic characters."

For the sake of Western ranchers and farmers, let's hope it is also one the federal government chooses not to repeat.

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