Sagebrush Rebels Take on Uncle Sam

Nye County, Nev., is ground zero in landmark battle for the West

TO get to the Pine Creek Ranch, turn northeast off Nevada state highway 376 onto an unpaved road and head up the valley and back into the 19th century. Drive past an old silver-mining town now mostly abandoned, through the traditional hunting areas of Shoshone Indians and the travel route of mountain man Jedediah Smith, far beyond the reach of telephone or electric lines - until you reach a cluster of weather-worn buildings with its collection of patched pickups and a small herd of curious ranch horses.

"This is not the end of the world," as the saying goes, "but you can see it from here."

It seems an unlikely site for a rebellion. But Wayne and Jean Hage's battle for control of the ranch - along with other simmering disputes here - has made sprawling, sparsely populated Nye County the center of a legal and cultural struggle over the future of the American West.

On one side are traditional Westerners - ranchers, loggers, miners, and others living and working on the land in much the same way the first white settlers did more than a century ago. On the other are government officials adjusting to a new environmental ethic demanding stricter management of federal land, which makes up most of the landscape in the rural West.

It's a conflict involving multimillion dollar lawsuits, challenges to government authority, allegations of harassment and intimidation on both sides, and several small bombings of state and federal facilities. It is the center of the "wise-use movement" or "sagebrush rebellion" - an apparent grass-roots uprising that is yet another expression of the West's deeply rooted ethos of independence.

"The simple premise is whether you, I, or anybody else agrees with what the Constitution says," Mr. Hage explains later over a biscuits and gravy breakfast at the Silver Queen restaurant in Tonopah, the Nye County, Nev., seat.

A native Nevadan, Hage dropped out of school when he was 15 to work on ranches. He got his high school equivalency certificate in the Air Force, then went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Nevada in Reno. Over the years, he's become as familiar with the Federalist Papers and the writings of John Locke as he is with the black saddle horse he rides around the ranch.

Hage's fight with Uncle Sam is long and involved, but it centers on private-property rights on ranches made up largely of land administered by the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and other federal agencies. Hage has spent years researching American history and constitutional law, the results of which were published in his book "Storm Over Rangelands," now in its third edition.

He and his lawyers argue that there is a "split estate" on Western lands. This means that while the federal government may have some legal claim to the land, the rancher has certain "range rights," including water sources, rights of way, minerals and timber, and forage for cattle.

Pine Creek Ranch covers some 700,000 acres, but only about 7,000 acres are deeded land, meaning the Hages own it outright. In the late 1980s, the Forest Service ordered them to reduce the number of cows on a portion of their Forest Service allotment, which agency officials contend had been overgrazed. When the Hages refused, armed federal agents hauled 104 head of cattle to an auctioneer.

Contending that they couldn't continue to run the ranch economically with fewer cattle, the Hages sold off the rest of the herd and sued Uncle Sam in the US Court of Claims for $28 million on the grounds that a "taking" of private property had occurred in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.

"You can take my boots, my hat, and my ranch, but you have to pay me just compensation," Hage says.

Meanwhile, Hage and ranch-hand Lloyd Seaman were arrested for clearing pinyon and juniper along an irrigation ditch on US forest land that is part of the ranch. They were convicted in US District Court of stealing firewood, but the US Court of Appeals reversed the lower-court decision in 1994.

Government lawyers want to have the case in the Court of Claims thrown out. But if the court refuses (as seems likely) then there will be a period of discovery in which each side must produce documents and other materials relevant to the case. It is here that Hage expects to reveal that federal officials, in collusion with environmentalists, intended to force the ranch's closure by undermining its economic viability - charges strongly denied.

Meanwhile, the company that holds the $500,000 ranch mortgage has been attempting to foreclose. There used to be 2,400 head of cattle here, but now just 600 head of another rancher's cattle graze on leased land for five months a year - producing far less income than it takes to run the ranch.

"I thought I was going to be able to retire, but I'm flat broke and fighting for my life," Hage says.

Environmentalists and other critics say the wise-use movement is nothing more than a front for corporate natural-resource extractors, including big timber, mining, and ranching companies seeking to control more land.

Supporters claim it's truly a grass-roots effort involving thousands of individuals and families across the rural West trying to protect their property rights - "all those dirty-hands people who make the world go round," as Rita Kaley puts it.

Ms. Kaley worked for a timber company in Hood River, Ore., until it was forced to cut its payroll from 300 to 175. Now she chairs the Oregon Lands Coalition, a network of 70 groups representing some 60,000 farmers, ranchers, miners, timber workers, and recreationalists.

Over lunch at a ranch and tree farm where she lives in Myrtle Point, Ore., Kaley says it's as important to preserve the "cultural diversity" of life in the West as it is to maintain the biological diversity ecologists prize.

"In a rural setting, people tend to honor their background more and carry it with them," she says. "They remember the struggles and still have a lot of the same struggles."

"A rural culture also tends to hold people together tighter," Kaley adds. "People do things more as a family, and everyone watches out for everyone else. We need to maintain these rural values."

Much of the West is becoming more urban as traditional economic activities dwindle in relative importance. But this does not necessarily mean that traditional customs and culture are being overwhelmed by new values and political inclinations.

"The demographics are working back our way," says Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, a leading wise-use organization based in Battle Ground, Wash. The association has developed into a major political force, able to generate an overnight lobbying blitz rivaling that of the National Rifle Association.

"People are leaving the cities to get away from crime and grit and dope, and they're coming for the values in small towns," he says in an interview at his farmhouse, which is packed with computers and fax machines. "Instead of people from outside taking over the small town, they're absorbing the culture and adopting a good deal of the philosophy. So, surprising as it is, our strength is actually building in a lot of rural communities."

Ron Arnold, who runs the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise in Bellevue, Wash., asserts that political winds have shifted in favor of the wise-use activists. "Our agenda is now the public agenda," he says, citing recent congressional elections and the elevation of property rights as a major issue nationally.

WEST of the Hage's Pine Creek Ranch, about 25 miles over the Toquima Range, is the home of Richard Carver, another lead actor in the sagebrush drama.

Here, Mr. Carver expounds on the infamous bulldozer episode that put him on the cover of Time magazine and into hot water with federal officials.

Dick and Midge Carver live on a small, 850-acre farm and cattle ranch that is wholly owned by the family. Elected a Nye County commissioner several years ago, Carver began worrying that federal agencies (which control 93 percent of the land in this sprawling county of just 20,000 people) were undermining the local economy through overregulation of mining and ranching.

The commissioners passed an ordinance asserting state control over the land, which meant that counties, as entities of the state under Nevada law, had the authority to manage the land - essentially usurping federal control. Things came to a head on July 4, 1994, when Mr. Carver - a crowd of friends and neighbors cheering him on as federal officials stood by - bulldozed open a road on Forest Service land that had been closed.

"Nobody knows better than the people right here what is good for that land," says Carver, who has been in big demand around the country as a speaker on state's rights and the fight to rein in federal bureaucrats.

But sitting at his dining room table, referring occasionally to Waco and Ruby Ridge, and frequently pulling out a well-worn copy of the US Constitution from his shirt pocket, he says there's more to it than that: "The issue is not land, the issue is constitutional jurisdiction."

He says Article 4 of the Constitution, governing the regulation of land and claims by states, is being violated.

Earlier this year, the US Justice Department sued Nye County to invalidate the ordinance declaring "home rule" over federal land. The case is being closely watched around the West. Some three-dozen counties in Nevada, California, Idaho, New Mexico, and Oregon have passed such ordinances and an equal number are moving in that direction. Lawmakers in about a half-dozen states have adopted nonbinding resolutions citing the US Constitution to assert sovereignty over federal land.

At times, the confrontation has become violent. There have been several small bombings at Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management facilities. Carver and his allies vigorously deny any links to these unsolved attacks or to local militia activity. "Why would we go out and do something stupid to lose our credibility?" asks Carver.

But Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, a critic of the rebellion, has spoken out against the "antigovernment rhetoric of those in positions of responsibility who should know better." He has warned of "the very real danger of extremist elements within the county supremacy movement."

Meanwhile, some public employees in the West, concerned for their own safety, are attempting to fight the wise-use movement in court. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a watchdog group of federal and state workers, recently sued a New Mexico mine owner and property-rights activist for "harassment and malicious prosecution" of two government resource managers.

But even those who see the sagebrush rebellion as a major threat to environmental protections acknowledge its growing influence.

"There are ways in which wise use has really come to be able to set the agenda for land-use policy," says Richard White, professor of history at the University of Washington. "It's absolutely astonishing, but they've managed to build on the idea of fear of government and turn property into a sacred icon."

On the other hand, Professor White says, "Environmentalists are beginning to look like eastern bankers wanting to throw people off the land."

"The real challenge for environmentalists in the West," he adds, "is to think about what a landscape with people looks like rather than a landscape without people."

A landscape that must somehow accommodate the Hages, the Carvers, and other ranchers, loggers, and miners of the "Old West" - as well as the influx of yuppies and retirees of the "New West."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Sagebrush Rebels Take on Uncle Sam
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today