America's sagebrush rebellion has suffered a major setback far from the western rangeland where a modern battle was joined over grazing rights on public lands.
SAN FRANCISCO — America’s sagebrush rebellion has suffered a major setback far from the western rangeland where a modern battle was joined over grazing rights on public lands.
Over the past 21 years, firebrand Nevada rancher Wayne Hage and his survivors waged a legal war against federal land managers who were seeking to restrict cattle grazing on public lands and became a heroic symbol for those who yearned for bygone days and bridled at the growing reach of government.
Then in a little noticed decision on July 26, a three-judge panel of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., overturned Hage’s hard-fought multimillion-dollar legal victories.
It was a quiet rebuke to a legal saga that began in 1991 after the government impounded some of Hage’s cattle. The rancher had defied grazing restrictions in Nevada’s Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and refused to pay fines for grazing permit violations.
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Challenging the government in court was a costly and time-consuming endeavor that Hage threw everything he had at, including the ranch for which he was fighting.
With his ranch house stuffed full of legal tomes as he became immersed in the case, the suit-clad, salt-and-pepper-bearded Hage became the epitome of the sagebrush rebel — the ideological forefathers of today’s tea party — and breathed life into a movement that captured the rebel spirit of the Old West.
“Hage is a hero in the sagebrush rebellion. He bet the ranch, literally and deliberately, because he believed passionately in this cause,” said Jon Christensen, executive director of Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.
“The tragedy is that so much intelligence, creative passion and love for the West … were wasted on such a doomed dead end,” he said.
After his cattle were seized, Hage and his wife, Jean, filed suit, saying the government’s denial of his rights to freely graze on public lands threatened his livelihood. Hage said ranchers like him had worked the land for more than a century, and should be allowed to continue.
In 2008, U.S. Claims Court Judge Loren Smith agreed, saying Hage’s rights had been violated, and ordered the government to pay the rancher’s family $4.4 million, a ruling that has now been tossed out.
But Margaret Byfield, Hage’s daughter, said from her home in Georgetown, Texas, that the family has until Sept. 10 to file for a rehearing, and they plan to do it.
“We are not surprised by this decision. Sitting through the appellate court hearings, we could tell which way the judges were headed,” she said. “There was a lack of understanding of western law and how the western lands function.”
At issue before the courts was whether private ranchers have a constitutionally protected ownership stake in public lands, and whether federal overseers of those lands — in this case the U.S. Forest Service and BLM — illegally stripped the ranchers of that property.
Government land managers, enforcing environmental laws meant to improve conservation and public access to these lands, have curtailed unfettered grazing through issuing permits that regulate the number of cattle allowed in an area.
Judge Smith ruled that the government illegally “took” Hage’s rights to graze on public lands by blocking his access to water.
Wayne Hage died in 2006; Jean in 1996. His estate was awarded the damages.
“If Hage’s case had succeeded, it would have been virtually impossible for public land managers to control private ranchers’ use of western public lands for cattle grazing,” said John Echeverria, a professor of law at Vermont Law School who filed “friend of the court” briefs in opposition to Hage.
“This would have made it far more difficult to maintain the public’s lands in a healthy state and make them available for a wide variety of public uses, including hunting, fishing, hiking and other forms of recreation,” Echeverria said.
Bureau of Land Management Nevada spokeswoman JoLynn Worley said the office could not comment on the ruling because of a related, continuing trespassing case involving the Hage family.
In the separate but related proceeding, a district court judge in Reno, Nev. on Friday indicated the Hage family and others are not guilty of trespassing on public lands, and that he intends to find federal rangers in contempt for issuing trespass notices while his court was still deciding the case.
Even though the long-running legal saga has turned against the ranchers, those who fought alongside Hage said the sagebrush rebellion lives on, albeit with a different tone.
“I think the fight’s going to continue, but it’s not a rebellion anymore,” said Fred Kelly Grant, a former federal prosecutor and private-property advocate who helped Hage’s family with the case.
Grant and Hage’s family now advocates not for “rebellion” but “cooperation,” a theory that the federal government is compelled by law to work more closely with states and counties when revising public lands policy.
Hage’s daughter offers $1,500, eight-hour courses on how to implement the coordination strategy, a concept that has become popular with tea partyers and other states’ rights movements.
In the coordination movement, the sagebrush rebellion lives, Grant said. “As long as there are people in the rural West, the battle between those people and those who would have them off the land is going to go on.”
Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., contributed to this story.