The SagebrushRebellion rides on
The 2015 Nevada Legislature will decide if Nevada will join Utah in demanding the federal government transfer the public lands back to the Nevada. Utah’s first ultimatum to the Congress expired this December 31.
The modern Sagebrush Rebellion began in the 1970s. The U.S. Constitution states that every territory admitted into the Union as a state shall enter with an “equal footing” to every other state. The states east of the Mississippi River were admitted with the federal government relinquishing all claims to the lands within their borders. Not so with the Western states, where the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service control much of the states’ land mass. In Nevada, the figure is at least 81 percent of the land.
President Ronald Reagan endorsed the rebellion, but no major victories occurred. In 1994, Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver drove a bulldozer to open up a closed Forest Service Road. Local governments passed ordinances that disputed federal control. In 2000, the Jarbidge “Shovel Brigade” also sought to open access to areas in northeastern Nevada closed by the Forest Service over concerns for the endangered bull trout. Both incidents received national attention, with Carver appearing on the cover of Time magazine. In 2001, demonstrators gathered in Palomino Valley to protest the BLM auction of 60 cattle owned by rancher Ben Colvin. A BLM agent panicked and drew his gun because a demonstrator had an unloaded pistol in his car. By 2014 tensions had escalated into an armed standoff between Clark County rancher Cliven Bundy and hundreds of supporters over the BLM’s attempt to seize Bundy’s cattle.
Native Americans have also resisted the BLM, with incidents involving cattle seized from the Dann Sisters near Elko over ownership of Shoshone lands in 2002.
Some Nevadans have fought the issue in the federal courts. Ruby Valley rancher Cliff Gardner took his case to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in the late 1990s but failed. For 20 years, the Hage family of Pine Creek Ranch in Nye County has been involved in litigation against the Forest Service over the issue of water rights. Water rights are state-issued since the 19th century, and so the conflict is over how federally-issued grazing rights conflict with state-issued water rights. Hage won major victories in 2002 and 2008 including a judgment of $14 million in the federal Court of Claims that ruled the Forest Service actions were a “taking.” In 1999, Hage married former Idaho Congresswomen Helen Chenowith, and for a while the Sagebrush Rebellion had something close to political royalty. However, Wayne Hage died of cancer in 2006 and Helen Chenowith-Hage shortly after in a tragic auto accident. Then appeals were lost on technicalities and the entire $14 million judgment may be un-collectible.
However, in a separate case decided in 2013 a Nevada federal district court ruled in favor of Wayne N. Hage, Wayne’s son, holding the conduct of the Forest Service “shocked the court’s conscience.” The court concluded that the Forest Service secretly tried to sell the Hage family’s water rights while still in litigation.
So there is a property right vesting in state water rights that the federal government cannot take under the fifth amendment, but enforcing that right in federal courts is very difficult.
Now it is the Nevada Legislature’s turn. In 1997, a bill that would have criminalized federal actions on the public lands died in the Senate. This new legislature is operating with a Republican majority. The Sagebrush Rebellion 2.0 goes on.