Sagebrush rebel - Rancher Hage spoke for many Westerners

June 8, 2006
By Sean Paige, Editor 
The Colorado Springs Gazette
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Colorado Springs, Colorado 80903
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Wayne Hage wasn't a name that resonated with most Americans. But among so-called sagebrush rebels -- Westerners who continue to buck under Washingtons big saddle -- Hage, who died earlier this week at 69, was a hero. The Nevada rancher and author of Storm over the Rangelands, a defense of grazing rights and property rights in the West, waged a long-running series of legal and rhetorical battles with the federal government, making him an inspiration to those who see Uncle Sam as an obnoxious interloper and believe Westerners should have more control over the
federal lands that impact them so profoundly. His second marriage, to former Washington state Rep. Helen Chenoweth, an equally staunch defender of property rights and critic of federal land policies, created a pairing of firebrands that was hard to top.

Hage is most famous for suing the federal government for a taking, claiming that forest service and BLM [Bureau of Land Management] bureaucrats violated hisFifth Amendment rights when they seized his livestock and attempted to dry up his Nevada ranch. What really came of the fight is open to debate. He prevailed on some points, lost on others. But sometimes the fight itself is whats important, when important principles are on the line. These were the stakes, as Hage described them in one interview:

His fight, he said, goes right to the basic premise of what constitutes a free society. There are no such things as civil liberties if you do not have private property and a force of law and justice to protect that private property. The founders of this nation knew that. ... If you're going to stand back and let people violate with impunity, the basic premise of private property, then we may as well throw in the towel on the rest of our civil liberties, because its not a matter of if, its only a matter of when are we going to lose the rest of them. If a persons cattle on his own range allotment isn't safe, if his own ditches and water rights arn't safe, if his patented private property is not safe, and if they can take those things at gunpoint, well then certainly they can take anything else they want at gunpoint.

Though dismissed by some as yahoos and throwbacks, Hage and other sagebrush rebels are to us a comforting reminder that some parts of the West remain untamed and unbowed -- and that vestiges of the rugged individualism forged in the opening of the frontier lives on. Some argue that such sentiments are based on legends and myths, which need to be shelved or stamped out in order to pave the way for a post cowboy West. But we find something exhilarating and reassuring about the occasional flaring of sagebrush rebellions -- in knowing that there are some Americans in the Wayne Hage mold, who aren't going to back down from what they see as Uncle Sams bullying ways. Theirs is a spirit thats too stubborn to crush.

The West is changing, of course, and is in some ways becoming tame, regimented, malleable, Easternizd. But sagebrush rebellions continue to flare, thankfully. In Elko, Nevada, for instance, where Hage was born, local officials continue to wage a decade-long battle with the U.S. Forest Service over the use of a rural county road -- a struggle which is really about who will have continued access to the public lands. That Nevada would be ground zero for such rebellions isn't surprising, given that more than 80 percent of the state is federally owned. But the potential is there wherever in the West people are suffering under Washingtons reign of error.

Is it right that distant and indifferent politicians and bureaucrats exercise so much control over the Wests fate? Shouldn't Westerners have a greater say in federal public lands policies, given their disproportional impact here? What can be done, if anything, to create a more equitable sharing of powers and responsibilities? Can the traditional livelihoods and lifestyles of the old West survive in the new West?

Wayne Hage may be gone. Bu these and other questions posed by him and other sagebrush rebels remain relevant.

The new ruling class

An alarming study by the libertarian Cato Institute suggests that a new class is being created in America -- a government working elite with special privileges, which is quickly outpacing the private sector in the salaries and benefits it receives. The study found that average federal government workers total compensation -- salary and benefits -- now is nearly double that of the average worker in the private sector. In 2004, the year studied, federal workers on average received total compensation of $100,178 a year, or 93 percent more than the private-sector average total compensation of $51,876.

And the gap has been widening in recent years. In 1950, federal workers earned 19 percent more in total compensation than private-sector workers. As recently as 1990, the total compensation differential was only 51 percent. But in the Clinton 1990s and the Bush 2000s, the gap rose sharply, to 68 percent in 2000 and the current 93 percent.

The total wage and compensation for all 1.9 million federal workers (not including military) now is nearly $200 billion a year. Put another way, if the gap in total compensation were cut back to the level of 1950, a hefty 38 percent of cost, or $76 billion, could be saved. Even in wild-spending Washington, D.C., with trillion-dollar budgets, thats a lot of money.

Chris Edwards, the studys author, said its the old problem of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs. Members of Congress constantly are pumped for greater pension plans and salary increases, he said, referring to the large presence of federal workers in Washington, where its easy to lobby. By contrast, he lamented, members of Congress never hear the other side of it because there are no organized interest groups of taxpayers, whose compensation, though half the size of that of federal workers, is burdened with paying for everything.
Copyright 2006, The Colorado Springs Gazette.