WASHINGTON — Wayne Hage Jr., whose family has battled federal agencies for more than two decades over water and property rights for its Nevada ranch, told lawmakers Tuesday the fight outlived his parents and has cost millions of dollars with no end in sight.
The Hage family story centered around its ranch near Tonopah is well known in the West and among property rights advocates who charge the government exercises a heavy hand in relations with those who make their livelihood off the land.
“The abuses were so great, I can tell you stories that would make the hair stand on the back of your neck,” Hage said. “I’m probably going to get retribution for just even being here and talking to you about this.”
Testifying before the House public lands subcommittee, Hage said one legal bill has grown to $4.3 million, “and there’s quite a bit owed on another attorney bill.” A trial judge has awarded the family attorney fees, “but the appeals process has been years and years.”
Hage said disputes that date to the late 1970s outlived his parents, and also his stepmother, former Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho.
“It does go back several generations,” he said. “My father and mother filed the first action in court against the federal government. We buried both of them. The case outlasted them.”
After his mother died, his father, Wayne Hage Sr., married Chenoweth, and “we buried her as well.”
Hage and ranchers from Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming and Oregon were invited to tell their stories at a hearing organized by Republicans and entitled “Threats, Intimidation and Bullying by Federal Land Managing Agencies.”
Subcommittee Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, said the session was the “first step in getting Congress to protect and strengthen civil rights — and property rights are civil rights — of people whose property rights the government wants to take without compensation.”
Democrats said the hearing, beginning with its accusatory title, was slanted against government agencies that have responsibility to manage federal land, even if there might be some bad apples in their ranks.
While some complaints against land agencies have been validated by the courts, others are unsubstantiated and based on hearsay, said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif.
“Things quickly rise to the level of caricature,” Huffman said “Instead of what could be a serious approach, we are once again trying to stage a whole bunch of mini-Sagebrush Rebellions because we don’t like the federal government.”
In the long-running Hage cases, there have been eight published decisions in three courts. Most recently, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones in Reno found in May that officials with the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service “entered into a literal, intentional conspiracy” against the family and people who leased or sold cattle to them.
“This behavior shocks the conscience of the court,” Jones wrote, as he held Tom Seley of the BLM and Steve Williams of the Forest Service in contempt of court and referred the case to the U.S. attorney for possible further prosecution.
“Nothing has happened so far,” Hage told the panel.
He urged harsh penalties against federal employees who “break the law and violate a person’s rights,” and an easier way to hold them accountable when they claim government sovereign immunity.
“We need to take the sovereign immunity away from federal employees who break the law,” he said.
Hage Jr. studied law in order to participate in the cases involving his family. Asked if that was what he grew up to do, he shook his head and said, “No sir, I grew up on the back of a horse, in the sagebrush. I had to do that to protect our rights.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.