On February 27th, Judge Gloria Navarro of the U.S. District Court of Nevada handed down a ruling with major implications for Cliven Bundy and his allies in the land-seizure movement. The ruling assessed $587,294.28 in penalties against rancher Wayne N. Hage who, like Cliven Bundy, was trespassing his livestock on federal public lands for at least 12 years without a permit and without paying fees. The ruling also requires the rancher to permanently remove any remaining livestock on federal public lands within 30 days.

It was the last gasp of a family feud against public lands that began with Wayne N’s father,  E. Wayne Hage. The elder Hage engaged in a decades-long legal battle with the federal government, making him a central figure in the early sagebrush rebellion days. He fancied himself something of a legal scholar, authoring a book laying out his theories in 1989.

The Hage case was a replay of federal legal actions taken farther south in Nevada against Cliven Bundy, who likewise is trespassing his cattle on federal lands closed to livestock grazing, and which led to the armed standoff between armed militias and federal officials at Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014. Two of the armed participants backing the rancher in that standoff, Jerad and Amanda Miller, subsequently were arrested for the murder of two off-duty police officers at a shopping mall in Las Vegas. The Bundys currently are on trial in Nevada for their involvement in the Bunkerville incident.

The Bundy rabble is fueled by a bundle of fanciful notions. Some believe that the federal government has no right to own land in the United States under the Constitution. Others have proposed that federal and state governments have no authority, and only county sheriffs have the right to enforce laws. The Hages proposed that the establishment of state-based water claims gives a rancher de facto ownership of the surrounding federal lands. Others held that grazing livestock on federal lands conveys a property right to those lands (and even to the point of posting ‘no trespassing’ signs and keeping federal officials out). Some of these crackpot legal theories are being peddled around the West by Angus McIntosh, a self-proclaimed legal expert with a background in agricultural economics who headlined a series of presentations while the Bundys’ armed occupation was underway at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January of 2016.

To critics, these assertions amount to treason, and their heavily-armed proponents are seen by many as domestic terrorists.

Judge Navarro’s ruling contains some blistering rebukes to these legal theories. “Ownership of state-based stockwater rights located on federal land does not confer the right to place livestock on federal land or to use forage without a permit, nor does it create an exception to the prohibition against placing or allowing livestock on federal land without authorization,” says the ruling, citing to legal precedents set in previous cases. Even the privilege of leasing of federal forage for livestock grazing is limited, because “Congress explicitly chose not to grant rights for livestock grazing or the use of forage on federal land” and “[p]ast custom and use does not confer a right to use federal rangeland.” Finally, Judge Navarro gave the Hage family a schooling on Constitutional law: “Any and all rights on federal property must be expressly granted by Congress and the law of the United States exclusively governs the disposition of federal property, and interests therein, under the United States Constitution, Article IV.”

The courts are the real experts on federal law, and the uncommonly strongly-worded legal smackdown administered by Judge Navarro shreds the flimsy claims of legal legitimacy to which land-seizure proponents have been clinging.

But Congress can always pass new laws, and the Bundy gang has aligned itself with anti-environmental factions in Congress, particularly the Utah congressional delegation. This anti-environmental caucus, styling itself the “Federal Lands Action Group” or FLAG, is working to privatize public lands, transfer them to the states, or hand over management authority to state or local governments. These legislative attacks on America’s public lands are backed by corporate interests tied to big-money lobbying firms like the American Legislative Exchange Council, Federalism in Action, the Heritage Foundation, and the State Policy Network.

Arrayed against all this dark money and anti-conservation intent are the real landowners – the American public. Across the United States, and even in rural western counties, an overwhelming majority of Americans treasure and support their federal public lands, and have been rallying in western state capitols against efforts to take these lands away. So far, the failure of state land seizure legislation to spread much beyond Utah makes this a fringe political movement. Even in Utah, the public is pushing back in defense of their federal lands in angry town hall meetings, and there is an exodus of the recreation industry from Utah in recognition that the state government is an entrenched enemy of the public lands upon which the recreation and tourism sectors depend. The anti-public-lands agenda espoused by the Bundys and Wayne Hage seems to be retreating in disarray.

Yet anti-public-lands statements are proliferating on Capitol Hill, and it remains to be seen whether Interior Secretary Zinke and the Trump administration will live up to their Teddy Roosevelt rhetoric or switch sides and join in the far-right push to liquidate public lands in the West.

The next chapter in the Bundy tale, and whether political leaders in Washington will take up the Bundy battle to deprive Americans of their western public lands, will be written over the next several years. In an interesting twist, Judge Navarro is now hearing the criminal case against Cliven Bundy and his allies involved in the Bunkerville standoff. Stay tuned.

Erik Molvar is the Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife.

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Erik Molvar

8 Responses to Federal Court Smacks Down Bundy Land-Seizure Theories

  1. avatar Stacy says:

    There is no authority granted to the U.S. Government to manage 90% of land and resources within a State. You and I both know that the Constitution speaks of the government erecting needful and useful buildings on the land they acquire with consent of State Legislators…but there is nothing erected on these lands- nor do we see the government putting them to use in any way. They have hoarded these lands for the sole purpose of disposing of or leasing the natural resources to foreign corporation’s for profits.The federal agencies that are charged with managing the lands have ignored laws written by Congress to dispose of certain lands (referred to as checker board lands) and instead have chosen to trade them for other lands; adding nothing to the confers of the U.S. Treasury as instructed by Congress but instead increasing their land holdings within the State.
    Furthermore, the residents of Nevada that have paid for the water rights and forage rights (and registered their claim with the State) have a lawful right to use those resources without begin impeded, harassed,and intimidated by federal employees.
    You forgot to mention that a federal judge (not in the loop) previously ruled that the federal agencies conspired against the Hage Family for years to destroy their business so they could acquire his land and rights for pennies on the dollar. This is what they have been doing to many families in the West.
    As much as we would like to believe that they wouldn’t do such a thing- they are, and the families you mentioned are not the only ones that have been victims,,but you probably already know this.
    See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMl6iTkfrm4,

    • avatar Ken Cole says:

      This is a blatantly false statement. The provision you cite in the Constitution only addresses the creation of Washington D.C. which is not a state but a district owned and managed by the federal government.

      Section 3 reads, in part: The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

  2. avatar Duane Short says:

    Thanks to folks like Rob Mrowka and The Center for Biological Diversity for fighting the likes of the Bundy’s and Wayne Hage’s over the decades. The fight indeed continues.

  3. avatar Ted Chu says:

    In all fairness it should be noted that Jarad and Amanda Miller were booted from the Bundy camp because they were deemed to be too crazed even for that group.

  4. avatar Kyle says:

    Excellent – Navarro’s ruling ought to be required reading going forward!

    Thanks for posting Erik!

  5. avatar me says:

    just one question if it is public land as you say then who is the public and who can use the land and who can’t? I’m just thinking that the bund’y family would be part of the public. right? and all the so called terest or protesters are also public right. So is the us gov. telling the public they can’t use the public land at gun point isn’t that wrong i’m pretty ser i heard the blm say in the video i watched that if they meaning the public people went on public land they would be shot. and i’m also pretty sure i saw a unarmed woman get teased on a public road. to me that is not public that is gov. over reach it’s pretty simple it’s either public or it’s not it’s kind of like wiled animals are wiled and can rome on privet land but privet animals cant rome on public land in all hunting regs it is written that wiled animals are protected by the us fish wiled life and parks even when they are on privet land. So then isn’t it a little bit of a of a double standard when privet animals run on public land just a question i had. I have seen what a herd of elk can do to a nice privet hay or grain feld. I have sean what wolves can do to privet live stock. and I have seen what mountain lions can do to privet horses, coyotes have don to sheep. but the us gove doesn’t do a whole lot for the public rancher farmer but when the privet farmer, rancher who provides the food for this great united state sets a fire to protect his house,or the very beef ayou get from your supermarked gets on public land now you have to pay a huge fine to who? not the public but to the us gov. so they can have the money to pay there thugs to run u off your land. the public land. The problem is the people do not understand the facts it takes 1 to three acres of grass to sustain one cow calf unit for 6 months one calf at time of slaughter was about 1200 lbs and will produce enough hamburger and stake for a family of 2 for about one year so you do the math 2 animals per year fore the population of your city
    Then when you go by hamberger ask your self why it’s so expensive. you or we the public is killing are own food source. one land grab at a time. and the public that lives in a city that doesn’t under stand the how much work and dedication to the lively hood of a farmer, rancher plant a garden or a house plant and under stand how much it takes to take care of it and think of thousands of acres the farmer and rancher takes cer of every day and if they don’t it will not produce for them and there fore they will not produce for us the public.

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‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey

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