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David & Goliath

When Big Brother decided to hold Wayne Hage and his rights hostage, this articulate, tenacious, driven rancher decided to fight back–and he’s winning.

Text and photos by Tim Findley

Wayne Hage
Hage is out there, pretty much alone. But like his Viking ancestors confronting a Celtic stone wall, he is given to storming the issue, no quarter given, none expected. In the West today, if you haven’t heard of Wayne Hage, you haven’t learned to listen.

Truth be known, “Old Yeller” and me don’t get along that well even on the best of days. That truck has a definite ’70s attitude, all consumption and little consideration of others. So, pulling into Tonopah at the start of a high-desert snowstorm, it seemed unlikely that we’d be going much further that day in pursuit of the elusive Wayne Hage.

Local kids had already been given a snow day off by school authorities knowing what was coming on the bus routes out to distant ranches, and plows were ahead of the shovels in piling the slush along the curbs and sidewalks. Only one last warming den I could find on the main drag was even still open, casting out a pale amber welcome in the steadily darkening afternoon. When it’s weather like that, there’s no hope of reaching the Hage ranch by telephone either.

Checking around on one last remote chance of getting lucky, I was told that, no, Hage was not in town. But I was informed and soon confirmed that his wife, former Idaho Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth Hage, was there. At the laundromat.
Put now aside all those pressures for political correctness and your new-age indignation. Helen Chenoweth Hage earned commanding respect in her three terms in Congress, leaving her seat only as she had promised as a self-imposed term limit, and in spite of pleas throughout the West that she at least be

offered a cabinet post. Forget the fact that her political moxie and no-nonsense charm made her probably the most admired, and often most controversial, representative of western rights in Washington, D.C. during all the dim years of Clinton-Babbitt. Put your mind on Tonopah in a snowstorm and know that somebody still has to do the laundry.

It is 60 miles out from Tonopah on roads few tourists travel to the Hage’s Pine Creek Ranch. When there is a blizzard blowing up, it seems a little further. Along with the laundry, I was grateful it was the former congresswoman, and not me, busting her four-wheeler through tracks at first a few inches, then soon a foot or so deep in steady snow that in some places blotted out any trace of road at all. “Can you see it?” she asked, merrily blasting along as if I could.

Wayne Hage and Helen Chenoweth have been married for just about a year-and-a-half now. In the context of whatever you want to call the struggle in the West–Wise Use Movement, Property Rights rebellion, Local Authority, whatever–it is, among the informed and even among some uninformed, the trophy union of the time. Sort of like Hickock and Calamity Jane.

Wayne was waiting at the end of what I could see of the road when we arrived. It would not be his way to admit it, but I had to conclude that he had been watching for quite some time before he spotted the dark form of her S.U.V. at last coming through that sheet of storm.

Hage is a Nordic type, Norwegian by heritage, with a kind of icy intellect that’s not unfriendly, but does expect you to have read the assignment. Like his Viking ancestors confronting a Celtic stone wall, Hage is given to storming the issue, no quarter given, none expected. In the West today, if you haven’t heard of Wayne Hage, you haven’t learned to listen.

If, less than a year after he acquired his 700,000-acre spread in Nevada’s Monitor Valley in 1978, the U.S. Forest Service and federal allies in the environmental movement had not begun their relentless pressure to buy or force him out, Hage might be known today only by his slightly grumpy approach to cowboy poetry. And by something of the same token, if federal marshals had not displayed such murderous intent on Randy Weaver and his family in what would become the Ruby Ridge part of her Congressional District, Helen Chenoweth might have gone on as a highly successful but publicly unnoticed management consultant and sometime lobbyist on western issues.

But in perhaps its most positive success of the period, it was the nemesis federal government that brought them together with mutual admiration–two scholarly but savvy people as much alike sometimes as Freud and Fulton.

Wayne will sit you down on the long side from the head of their big table he commands in the ranch house that both are remodeling these days. Hospitality and warm food abounds, but you soon learn to think about the question before you ask it.

“Well, okay,” Hage is likely to begin, “let me explain that to you, and I’ll walk you through it....”

Helen, who happens to think her husband is “the smartest man I’ve ever met,” has also learned to notice the flicker of caged fear in the eyes of guests being invited to “walk through” yet another trek of Hage knowledge stepping off usually from somewhere near the American Revolution.

Wayne Hage, who happens to think his wife is, “the brightest politician I’ve ever met–because she knows how to listen,” can in truth, be tiresome. Even he agrees that probably half the people listening to him and nodding their heads don’t really get it at all, and that another third are just pretending they do. God knows he tries, but it takes a lot of patient comprehension.

If there is only one thing Hage would want understood, it’s this: there is no such thing as “public lands.” The very phrase “public land” should be abolished from the lexicon of people like him who are willing and capable of taking on the issue of “federal lands” in the West. Put on some good shoes, it’s a long walk through it.

When the U.S. Park Service first came to Hage wanting to buy his ranch for a new park, they offered him about half what it is worth. “And when I said ‘What about my grazing allotments,’ they shook their heads and said, ‘Oh, no, that’s public land.’ I already knew better than that, but they didn’t–yet.”

If they couldn’t buy it with their bargain offer, the feds seemed just as determined to snatch Pine Creek and the Monitor Valley some other way. First, incredibly, as a national defense site for the MX missile project, a cold-war fiasco that would have ICBMs running around the

In his federal case,
Hage is not the
defendant. It’s the
U.S. government
that is accused of
taking his property,
and what is clearly
at issue is that it was
and is his property,
on which he pays
his taxes, that the
federal government
is trying to steal.
Pine Creek Ranch
Pine Creek Ranch runs on 700,000 acres in central Nevada. The ranch house sits at about 5,000 feet but cattle graze in summer up to 11,000 feet. The Hage place is quiet and beautiful...and coveted by the feds.

range on railroad tracks like the rabbit at the dog track. The MX went down in flames of controversy and sinister implications that stretched into some of the best-known names and political careers in the state. Hage didn’t need to look for allies or even lawyers in that fight. They found him.

With the beginning of the Clinton administration, the covetous eyes of federal authority found new focus on the Hage property. Now it was new grazing regulations and claims to water rights covering his allotments they used to turn the ratchet tighter on the stubborn Norwegian with a master’s degree in science and a book full of research on his property rights. When Hage refused to cave in to the ranch-killer pressure, federal authorities confiscated his cattle for illegal grazing on “public” land.

“There is no such thing as ‘public’ land,” says Hage. “Since at least 1890, it has been established as split-estate federal land. The government retains the mineral rights, but surface property rights to forage and water and access are established in lawfully adjudicated grazing allotments and recorded as state law. It is federal land, but I own the surface property rights.”

It is at about that point that many in the long cast of western characters to whom Hage has explained it begin to shuffle a little in their seats. Hage has been singled out in the unprecedented seizure of his cattle and his allotment rights. Even if he might have chosen it that way, he was being forced to go it alone in his stance against a federal taking of his property without compensation.

The second most important thing Hage wants his guests to get is that you do, of course, take the bastards to court–but you take them to the right court.

“The inclination every time is to go to federal district court to defend your rights to justice,” Hage says. “But the federal district can’t decide that. It can’t fix a property rights’ dispute, it’s not their jurisdiction. All it can do is decide on the rules and regulations. The issue is the property–was it yours and did they take it?–and the only court that can decide that is the United States Federal Court of Claims.” In his federal case, Hage is not the defendant. It’s the U.S. government that is accused of taking his property, and what is clearly at issue is that it was and is his property, on which he pays his taxes, that the federal government is trying to steal.

It’s federal, not “public” land–a split estate–and your rights can be confirmed in the federal court of claims. If you get that much, you’ve earned the right to some knowing nods at the long table in the ranch house. But Hage has more, much more. He is, in fact, winning, and it may make a significant difference in western history. “Let me walk you through that,” says Wayne. And Helen has such a pretty smile.

Hage is very aware that other ranchers and property right holders instinctively seek a “silver bullet” solution in some far foreseen U.S. Supreme Court decision. But if that ever comes, it is likely to be a coup de grace to federal authorities already badly wounded by Hage’s victories in the federal court of claims before Judge Loren Smith.

“We have yet to lose on a single issue,” Hage says, “and bit by bit we are breaking down 100 years of federal misinformation on so-called ‘public’ lands.”

So far, the court has found for Hage in concluding that the United States Forest Service did take his property and did set out to destroy the economic viability of his ranch. His allotments, covering some 600,000 acres, are part of his property, the court has said, and there has been preliminary agreement that Hage owns the water, forage and access rights to that property, although the scope and extent of those rights remain at some issue.

The stage is thus set for the key decision that could open up a whole new vista on the issue of western property rights. Hage doesn’t deny that the U.S. Constitution permits the federal government to seize his property, but not, under terms of the fifth amendment, without just compensation. The key decision expected from the court this year is how was the property taken and what is its value?

Already, Hage confides, there have been subtle, second-hand attempts to settle the matter in figures that bounce heavily around $20 million. Even for an interim taking that would cover the nine or 10 years that Hage has been deprived of his ranch’s productive capacity, the amount might exceed that, and a more punishing ruling on a full taking could double it. Hage stands to win. Big time.

He’s no Viking dummy ready to start the feast, however. Hage and his lawyers know the case will go on in political as well as legal arenas as environmentalists especially attempt to drum up hysteria over the “loss of public lands.”

“Johanna Wald of Natural Resources Defense Council has been quoted as saying, ‘We know we’re going to have to buy these allotments,’” Hage points out, and similar buy-out, force-out strategies were produced at this year’s green-fed RangeNet 2000 symposium against grazing, oddly in a way acknowledging the truth to Hage’s position on split-estate property.

But for those in the western property rights’ movement willing to listen, Hage advises persistent patience along with careful planning. “A right undefended is a right waived,” he says. “The protection of property rights is fundamentally the preservation of civil liberties.”

Only, don’t go beating your shields at the wrong time or in the wrong place, Hage advises. Some ranchers have already waited past the six-year statute of limitations on takings cases. Others persist in trying their luck hopelessly in federal district courts.

“It’s like if you have an ignition problem with your car and you take it to the transmission shop,” Hage begins. “That’s the wrong place. They can’t fix it. Let me walk you through this....” It is no easy stroll from there into what Hage ultimately sees as an attempt to create a Treasury-saving corporate state covering federal land. But two points a night–the federal split estate and the U.S. Court of Claims–are fair achievements in following Wayne Hage. And besides, Helen at that point kindly offers a glass of wine to finish the evening.

It has stopped snowing by morning in the Toiyabes and across Monitor Valley, where from the crest of Table Mountain one of Hage’s kids once called it “the edge of the world.” Two feet of a silent white blanket spread as far as the eye could see up to the distant peaks still embraced by clouds. The vision part of the view.

Though they grudgingly acknowledge his intellect, the usually liberal press continue to cast Wayne Hage as part of the “Sagebrush Rebellion,” something they imagine as a kind of horse-barn conference meant to stampede across the “public” lands. It wasn’t, and Hage never was part of that privatization attempt anyway. They don’t quite understand Hage, and though they think they do, they don’t quite understand his wife either. Helen Chenoweth was an attractive single lady when she served her state in Washington, D.C. Among other unfair characterizations, the media there once called her, “The Poster Girl for the Militia Movement,” which she definitely was not.

Together now they work with Hage’s Stewards of the Range foundation, carrying on a struggle Hage sees as nowhere near over. They commute as much between Idaho and Nevada as more ordinary folks might between home and the supermarket. Neither Wayne nor Helen play upon the celebrity status they’ve earned. Talk between them is more often over picking up more one-by-eights for bookshelves to finish the remodeling project.

But strolling out hand in hand after breakfast through the fresh snow along the corrals, they do seem a legendary pair. Like Hickock and Calamity Jane.

And, whaddya know, it is Valentine’s Day.

Old Yeller had developed an attitude after being left in Tonopah all night and refused to start. Helen offered to push but Tim convinced her that it was strictly between him and “that damn truck alone.” He won, eventually.

For information on the nonprofit, private property rights group, Stewards of the Range, call 208-336-5922 or check their website at <>. Donations to help with the case would be appreciated to Stewards of the Range, P.O. Box 1189, Boise, ID 83701.

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