Nevada rancher E. Wayne Hage has been fighting the federal government for decades over his historical rights to water livestock, irrigate his ranch, and use water for domestic purposes. In the early 1990s, Hage filed a takings lawsuit in the Court of Federal Claims, arguing that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management took his water rights by interfering with his ability to access the streams and ditches in which his water flowed. That lawsuit met with mixed results. The trial court concluded that Hage held vested rights in the disputed water and that the federal agencies had taken those rights. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals partially reversed the trial court decision. Earlier this year, PLF filed an amicus brief in support of Hage’s petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review his takings case.
But the legal saga does not end there. While Hage’s takings case was pending at the Court of Federal Claims, the Forest Service and BLM filed a second lawsuit in Nevada, hoping to get better results from a different judge. Despite Claims Court rulings to the contrary, the federal agencies argued that they owned Hage’s water rights and asked the court to award the government damages for Hage’s alleged “trespass” on the water. Hage counterclaimed that the feds violated his constitutional and statutory rights by interfering with his ability to access and use his water and by refusing to process applications to renew his grazing permits.
This is where the story gets really interesting.
Late last week, the Nevada district court issued a 104-page ruling detailing the federal agencies’ “vindictive,” “shocking,” and “nonsensical” actions against the Hage family. The case largely turned on the agencies’ capricious decision to reject Hage’s application to renew his grazing permits. The feds were apparently upset that Hage had written “without prejudice UCC 1-207″ under his signature—a legally meaningless attempt to say that by applying for a permit renewal, he was not waiving his water rights. Because of the “offensive” marginalia, the feds refused to process that or any further applications from the Hage family. And by doing so, the agencies blocked Hage from grazing and watering his cattle on the range for over a decade.
But, oh, there is more … much more.
Apparently unsatisfied with just blocking Hage’s ability to graze on the range, the agencies decided to turn the screw on the Hage family. The feds filed paperwork with the state, seeking to transfer Hage’s water rights to other individuals. The agencies solicited and granted temporary grazing rights to others in areas where the Hage family had historically ranged their cattle and held a priority interest. And the feds sent trespass notices to people who leased or sold cattle to the Hages in order to pressure other parties not to do business with the Hages, and even to discourage or punish testimony in the lawsuit.