Two coils of rope and a cowboy hat hang on bull horns mounted over Wayne Hage Jr.’s desk, the rest of his office dedicated to shelves upon shelves of law books. In the evening at his generator-powered Nevada ranch, Hage and his sister Ramona Morrison engage in repartee on court cases and property laws, as his three young children roast marshmallows in the living room fireplace.
If Hage and Morrison had their way, they’d be spending their days focused on taking care of the Pine Creek Ranch: galloping through shrub-dotted valleys and jutting rocky mountains, rounding up stray cattle, and following in the footsteps of generations before them. Instead, overgrown weeds line the dirt road in Meadow Canyon, as Hage has just returned from a weeklong visit with his attorney to prepare for an upcoming appeal. Morrison now lives near Reno working as a legal consultant specializing in property rights in the West.
The Hage family has now fought a 35-year battle against the federal government to protect the family’s grazing and water rights. With more than 87 percent of Nevada’s land owned by the federal government, ranchers are allowed grazing permits and many have water rights dating back to the 1800s. Yet since the Hages moved to their 752,000-acre ranch near Tonopah, Nev., in the late ’70s, officials from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and U.S. Forest Service have buried the Hages with onerous regulations with an aim to kick them and their cattle off the land.
The tale of cowboys (and Indians) vs. federal bureaucrats (and environmentalists) stretches across the Western United States, where more than 50 percent of the land is federally owned, and goes back to the days of the Sagebrush Rebellion in the 1970s. Although the movement fizzled out when Ronald Reagan was voted president, the regulations continued to tighten and skirmishes broke out in the courtroom as well as on the range. Environmentalists aiming to wipe out all ranching on federal land have succeeded in getting the government to force more ranchers out of their livelihoods. In response, Western states are trying to transfer federal lands to state control, believing the federal government has broken its trust with its citizens.
BUMPING DOWN THE DIRT ROADS in Pine Creek Ranch is a time warp to a different age. After miles of nothing but arid Nevada desert, cotton candy skies, and the occasional cluster of munching cows, the ghost town of Belmont emerges in the distance. Crumbling facades from the 1865 mining town stand next to renovated buildings, like Dirty Dick’s Belmont Saloon. Inside the dimly lit room warmed by a wood-burning stove, hunters and ranchers with cowboy hats and leathered faces catch up on the latest news. One man pointed to the elk bloodstain on his khakis as a sign of his success that day, as an older man with an unruly white beard contemplated if he was celebrating his 49th or 50th wedding anniversary. He shrugs his shoulders and asks: “Who gets married in the middle of hunting season anyway?”
While Belmont was still in its heyday in 1866, Hage’s predecessors secured rights to water sources around the area to use for their cattle. Although Nevada became a state in 1864, the federal government did not dispose of the land in the state, in part because much of the land was too arid for homesteading. The federal government kept the land under its control, while recognizing vested water rights and grazing preferences. Currently, Pine Creek Ranch is 99 percent public land, and 1 percent privately owned.
In 1934, Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, which created grazing districts regulated by the federal government to ensure that the land would be put to good use. Ranchers had to pay for 10-year grazing permits, and priority was given to those who already had water rights in the area. While the purpose for the system was intended for good, many ranchers believe that the pendulum has now swung too far the other way as BLM officials make it nearly impossible for ranchers to stay in business.
Morrison remembers her excitement when her parents, Wayne and Jean Hage, brought her and her four siblings to their new home of Pine Creek Ranch in 1978. The horse-loving teen cherished the times her dad brought her along to round up cattle on horseback. The earlier owners sold the ranch because of trouble with the Forest Service, yet the elder Wayne Hage thought that with his experience working with the feds on his previous California ranch, he wouldn’t face the same problems.
Reposted by Reagangirl.com December 4, 2014