Court rules grazing not a right

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A federal court ruled sagebrush rebel Wayne Hage does not own 752,000 acres of public land because his cattle grazed there.

In the decision, Senior Judge Loren A. Smith ruled Hage does own water rights in central Nye County and if by canceling his grazing permits, the federal government has prevented the use of those rights, he is due compensation.

The ruling, issued Jan. 29 in U.S. Court of Federal Claims, made it clear that grazing rights are not a property right.

However, Smith did point out that Nevada law establishes ownership of water rights put to beneficial use.

Smith's ruling is the first part of a two-part decision on the Hage case, filed in 1991 when the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service canceled the rancher's grazing permits.

Hage claims the cancellation of his grazing permits put the Pine Creek Ranch out of business. He sued the government in 1991 for an illegal takings and added a claim to ownership of 752,000 acres of land in Central Nevada in 1997.

In his suit, Hage claimed the government also prevented him from gaining access to his water when it canceled his grazing permits, which included 16 ditches and pipelines. Dozens of wells and springs included in the Ralston and McKinney allotments were also established as Hage's property.

Smith ruled that Hage established ownership for 10 of the 16 waterways and pointed out he also had a right to 50 feet on either side of the ditches.

"The government cannot deny plaintiffs access to their vested water rights without providing a way for them to divert the water to another beneficial purpose," Smith wrote. "The government cannot cancel a grazing permit and then prohibit the plaintiffs from accessing the water to redirect it to another place of valid beneficial use."

Smith ruled only on questions of ownership, not what the property was worth.

However, he hinted that since Pine Creek Ranch was a going concern before the grazing rights were removed and Hage was barred from access to the water.

"When you combine everything the court has ruled that we own in this final decision, it is clear that the key property rights essential to a western livestock grazing operation are recognized," Hage said.

Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa said she was pleased the U.S. Court of Federal Claims agrees with the state that Hage can't claim ownership of the public lands he uses to graze livestock in central Nevada.

Del Papa said she agrees a rancher has the ability to use those lands to graze stock but land managers have to consider other users as well.

"Public lands belong to all of us," she said.

The state is challenging the right of the federal court to make decisions about whether Hage owns water rights or not.

Smith addressed the issue of jurisdiction, saying the court was concerned with the property taken, not whether the state is going to allow Hage continued use of the water rights.


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