RENO, Nev. (AP) - A federal judge has awarded more than $4.2 million to the estate of late Nevada rancher and private property rights advocate Wayne Hage, ruling that the U.S. Forest Service committed a constitutional "taking" of his water rights during a decades-long dispute over livestock grazing on federal land.
Calling the conflict a "drama worthy of a tragic opera and heroic characters," U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Loren A. Smith also ordered the government to pay back interest to the family of one of the leaders of the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" during the 1980s.
Hage's lawyer estimates the interest dating to 1991 to be an additional $4.4 million, which he said would make it the largest award ever in such a case.
"It sends a pretty important message to the government that if you screw with a small ranching family and put them out of business, you have to pay big bucks," said Lyman "Ladd" Bedford, a San Francisco-based lawyer who has argued the case since Hage first filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in 1991.
Smith, based in Washington D.C., ruled that government restrictions severely reducing water flows to Hage's land "deprived them of the water they needed for irrigation, making the ranch unviable."
"The court finds the government's actions had a severe economic impact on plaintiffs and the governments' actions rose to the level
of a taking," he said in Friday's ruling.
"Whereas real property ownership is defined by a right to exclude others from that property, water ownership is defined by the right to access and use that water."
Like in similar cases in the past, the judge said the cancellation of Hage's federal grazing permit as a result of overgrazing and trespassing did not in itself amount to a "taking" prohibited under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution. That's because a grazing permit is "a license, not a contract or property interest," he said.
However, Smith said the taking occurred when the Forest Service - apparently motivated by "hostility" toward Hage - made it impossible for him to maintain the irrigation ditches.
The ditches were regulated under the 1866 Ditch Act, which was enacted one year after the Pine Creek Ranch was founded in central
Nevada. They brought water to the sprawling 7,000-acre ranch in central Nevada that Hage bought in 1978 and the 700,000 acres of national forest land where he grazed his cattle - an area equal to about two-thirds of the size of Rhode Island.
Ed Monnig, supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, said Tuesday there had been no decision made yet on whether to appeal.
"We're aware of Friday's court decision and our agency is now considering the implications of this ruling and carefully weighing options," Monnig said.
Hage, who was married to the late U.S. Idaho Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage at the time of his death in 2006, first filed a claim seeking $28 million in 1991. He said in an interview in 2004 that his case "could have a dramatic impact on Western state's rights and the proper jurisdiction of federal lands in the West."
"It's the first time in nearly a century that someone has effectively challenged the government over who owns the range rights and water rights out here on these federal lands," he told The Associated Press.
Hage had argued the proliferation of willows, pinion, juniper and other vegetation in the ditches over the years resulted in a significant reduction in the flow of water to his pastures. He said that was primarily because of the Forest Service's demand that he maintain the ditches using nothing more than hand tools.
"Extensive evidence has convinced the court that but for the government actions plaintiffs would have had the water in which they had a vested right," the judge wrote.
"The hand tools requirement prevented all effective ditch maintenance, as it cannot be seriously argued that the work normally done by caterpillars and back hoes could be accomplished with hand tools over thousands of acres. With hand tools the task would have taken years or decades and required hundreds of workers."
Hage "offered ample evidence that the Forest Service had engaged in harassment toward (him), enough to suggest that the implementation of the hand tools requirement was based solely on hostility to plaintiffs," Smith said.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)