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Opinion: Columnists

For a brave ranching family, the government was armed and dangerous

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"Don't shoot up our water tanks," said the rancher, "and if you're going to aim towards the meadow, make sure there's no cattle out there."

The uninvited campers squirmed, unsure how to react.

"And while you're hiking," the rancher continued, "if you run across any problems, like downed fences, or strays, or vandalism, I'd appreciate it if you'd let me know. You can leave a note at the ranch house you drove by down at the creek. Now, have a good time and be safe."

That unexpected welcoming speech -- heard by many a grateful city slicker gawking at the Toiyabe high country -- had become part of the legend of "firebrand" Nevada rancher E. Wayne Hage by the time he died of cancer in 2006.

Hage's son, Wayne N. Hage, told me that his father explained it thus: "If I shooed off everybody that came on the ranch, I'd make a lot of enemies. This way I recruit a lot of unpaid caretakers."

E. Wayne Hage's unpaid caretakers spread across the whole West. When he was indicted in 1992 on trumped-up felony charges brought by malicious Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service bureaucrats (reversed on appeal), nearly 200 friends -- some he'd never met, including a county judge -- formed a protest parade marching from Reno's casino district into the federal courthouse. During Hage's arraignment, when the judge ordered, "The defendant will rise," the crowd silently stood up with him.

This is not the ignorant redneck bully of USFS and BLM public relations fiction "who can only be dealt with in very extreme measures." Bureaucrats tried to cast him that way to justify sending 30 agents -- some armed with semiautomatic weapons and wearing bulletproof vests -- to confiscate 104 of his cows. Hage showed up armed with his camera.

Hage held a master's degree in biological science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he was a trustee of the University of Nevada Foundation, a licensed property appraiser and an author of children's books.

His lawsuit, Hage v. United States, was filed in September 1991, and took five trials in U.S. claims court to work through the split-estate ownerships that were the core of his thesis of private rights in federal lands. The Hage estate won in 2008, two years after Wayne died. His thesis has not yet been mastered by federal district courts, one of which recently reversed "Hage V" -- as the final trial is known -- by using inapplicable regulatory law and warped procedural law because the appeals panel could not overturn on the basis of property law.

Why did two United States agencies wage such a horrendous war against this man? What was the motive?

The chilling answers surfaced in government messages placed in claims court evidence: greed first, power second, ideology third.

On April 2, 1990, James Overbay, deputy chief of the Forest Service, sent a letter to regional foresters urging them to support environmental group objectives in return for their help supporting bigger Forest Service budgets.

On February 13, 1991, David Grider, a Nevada-based USFS district ranger, sent a letter to Hage canceling his livestock grazing permit. A little over a week later, Grider forwarded a copy to Roy Elicker, attorney for the National Wildlife Federation.

On March 10, 1991, Elicker gave a seminar at a law conference. "What everyone likes is the big victory -- you load them cattle trucks for the last time and they go driving off into the sunset and they never come back," he said. "But you can win a lot more victories than that ultimate one. ... How you win is one at a time, one at a time, he goes out of business, he dies, you wait him out, but you win."

Greed, power, ideology.

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

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