Old Ranchers

(Note: The Hage ranch is called Pine Creek Ranch. Cattle and horses once again graze its vastness. Wayne won, and in so doing, we all won.)

June 19, 2006

By Larry Gabriel, South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture

Dakota Voice



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Some people think the "Old West" is a bygone era. They are wrong. All the best of it lives in the hearts of people like Wayne Hage and his wife, Helen Chenoweth-Hage.

Never heard of them? Wayne is the Nevada rancher who fought the federal government over water rights on his ranch for more than twenty years. Helen is a former Idaho Congresswoman who married Wayne in 1999.

The whole thing started back in 1978 when Wayne found and bought the ranch of his dreams. As it turned out, some federal officials were dreaming of the same place and wanted it for a park or wilderness area.

Wayne owned the place only about two months before federal officers tried to "buy" it for about half of what he paid. Maybe there are people dumb or scared enough to take such an offer, but not in the West. The fight was on.

Most of what Wayne bought was vested water rights and related improvements on leased federal lands surrounding his private tract of 7,000 acres. All the government wanted to pay for were his deeded acres.

They figured they could get the rest away from him without paying for it. The federal officers proceeded to make life difficult for him and even filed competing water rights claims. They were wrong about water rights.

Water rights are traditionally established by state law and governed by state law. They could take away his lease by simply not renewing it, but the water rights and related improvements were property, under state law.

However, in the process of proving that (over the course of ten years of legal battles), Wayne was forced to sell his herd.

In one sense, you could say the government officials won. They outlived Wayne and they put him out of business, but they didn't win. If you do an Internet search on Wayne's name, you will find it on 199,000 pages. Many of the leaders of the states' rights and property rights organizations of America knew him personally.

A person from the East once asked, "Why is it that only the Western States fundamentally grasp the concept of states' rights?" The reason we understand is simple. Everyday we look at a mountain, a valley, a field or stream and know who gives us our rights. We also know that Congress has only the rights we choose to give them, and no others.

States' rights and property rights are everything. They are the foundation of our nation and we still understand and respect that foundation. We also know that anyone has only the rights for which they are willing to fight. The rest is just paper.

As Wayne said, "Either you have a right to own property, or you are property."

Wayne is not gone. Old ranchers never really die. They just go to seed. New life will spring from the seeds he planted.

The only way to guarantee failure is to not try.

Copyright 2006, Dakota Voice.