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Major court victory for ranching family also trashes federal rogues

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"If there is one incomparable hero of the modern American West who deserves the thanks of the whole nation for his epic struggle upholding the rights of resource providers against federal oppression, it is Nevada-born rancher Wayne Hage."

That's the verdict of Howard Hutchinson, who fights the same power-hungry U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management bureaucrats whom Hage fought from 1978, when he and his wife, Jean, bought Pine Creek Ranch in central Nevada's Monitor Valley, until his death from cancer in 2006.

Hutchinson, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Coalition of Arizona/New Mexico Counties, told me that his respect for Hage is shared by literally thousands of grateful families that work on our federal lands to provide food, fiber, fuel and fortune to those who buy, sell and consume their bounty. And, yes, they do get that lyrical about it.

The Hage family began having problems with the government from the day the family took possession of Pine Creek: unfriendly visits, a government pickup that tried to run them off the road, 40 complaint letters, 70 visits and 22 charges from the Forest Service in a single year, and a threat to prosecute Hage for trespass if he crossed federal lands to maintain his stock water ditches. Then the government seized his cattle, sold them at auction and kept the money.

He sued in federal claims court -- Hage v. United States -- where his estate won in 2010 and lost on appeal on July 26 of this year. The case will likely go to the Supreme Court.

On June 6, Chief District Judge Robert C. Jones of the United States Court for Nevada presided over the 22nd day of the bench trial in the case of United States v. Estate of E. Wayne Hage et al. -- which the government filed five years ago in an attempt to take away the Hages' forage rights. The 130-page transcript of Jones' preliminary findings and conclusions blazes with outrage at what he found in the record and testimony:

"So I'm finding and concluding as a matter of law that the government and the agents of the government in that locale [the Hage ranch], sometime in the '70s and '80s, entered into a conspiracy, a literal, intentional conspiracy, to deprive the Hages of not only their permit grazing rights, for whatever reason, but also to deprive them of their vested property rights under the takings clause. ...

"But the intent to deprive them of their [grazing] preference is abhorrent and shocks the conscience of the Court and constitutes a basis for an irreparable harm finding."

The document goes on in that vein for several pages. Two men, Bureau of Land Management Tonopah Field Office Manager Tom Seley and Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest District Ranger Steve Williams, were ordered to show cause for why they should not be held in civil contempt. Their efforts to deprive the Hages of their forage rights also gave Jones the legal bases for further action: "I've already cited these bases in a separate transcript as a basis for criminal reference of Mr. Seley, and I'm adding Mr. Williams, to the U.S. Attorney for potential consideration of criminal prosecution for the conspiracy."

A news release by Range magazine quoted Jones: "The problem is Mr. Seley especially, and to a lesser extent, Mr. Williams ... had to kill the business of Mr. Hage. They had to stop him in any way possible.

"Mr. Seley can no longer be an administrator in this BLM district. I don't trust him to be unbiased. Nor can he supervise anybody in this district."

Jones indicated he will release his final opinion and order sometime in October.

Examiner Columnist Ron Arnold is executive vice president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

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Ron Arnold

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The Washington Examiner