Every month, Raymond Yowell, the 84-year-old former chief of the Shoshone Indian Tribe in northeastern Nevada, has almost $200 garnished from his $1,150 Social Security check, and it all dates back to a 5:00am phone call on a Friday morning in 2002.
That morning, a government official from the Bureau of Land Management told him to come down to a seizure site where the 132 cattle he owned were about to be impounded.
When he arrived, men brandishing handguns told him he couldn’t get any closer than 250 yards from his cattle. He watched from a distance as the government loaded the livestock onto stock trailers.
Within a week, the cattle had been sold at a private auction – for what Yowell estimated to be a quarter of their market price. The proceeds belonged to BLM, officials told him, paying a portion of the grazing fees he suddenly owed. It wasn’t enough to cover the full debt, and BLM sent Yowell a bill for $180,000.
Yowell has been fighting the BLM in court ever since, but while the case moves its way through the system, his Social Security check takes a hit every month.
The story, ranchers in Nevada say, is far from unique. Beginning in the late 1980s, BLM adopted aggressive tactics in the West, leading to large-scale cattle seizures and a disruption of life for ranchers that had utilized public lands for decades prior.
While the press has showered attention on Cliven Bundy, a polarizing man who prompted a tense standoff between Bundy’s well-armed militia supporters and federal police, the struggle between ranchers and the BLM is much broader.
In 1994, Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt rushed through a total overhaul of cattle and sheep grazing regulations on over 260 million acres of land that was managed by the BLM and Agriculture Department’s U.S. Forest Service, The Washington Post reported.
The 1994 “Rangeland Reform” regulations included doubling the current fees charged to ranchers for public forage and further environmental rules to prevent “overgrazing.” Opponents noted that in the runup to the new regulations, the National Academy of Scientists – a preeminent scientific authority on which federal agencies rely for expert analysis – had issued a report concluding so little was known about the condition of U.S. range lands that the new standards were essentially a shot in the dark. But Babbit forged ahead anyway.
At the time, former-Sen. Pete Domenici ripped the plan, a version of which he had defeated in Congress when it was a legislative proposal the year before. “The last thing we should do is hurry decisions that have far-reaching effects on western states,” he said.
Underlying the move to raise fees was BLM’s view that the fees on public lands were too low – much lower than fees to graze on private land, for example.
But as Heather Smith Thomas, an Idaho rancher, noted in a 1994 article in Rangelands, a peer-reviewed academic journal, the private grazing fees were artificially high because the government owns so much land in the West.
“What many people do not understand is that the ‘low’ fee is just one small portion of the rancher’s many costs in using public land. The total costs amount to much more than renting private pasture, yet the rancher is locked into this situation, totally dependent on the public range. He can’t just walk away if the fee gets too high, and rent pasture elsewhere; there is not sufficient private pasture available,” Thomas wrote.
The new fees imposed upon ranchers in the 90’s were skewed, according to Thomas, because the fee was based on private land lease rates, but private lease rates were high due to the scarce availability of private land and the lack of regulations on private land compared to federally owned land.
Thomas noted the”BLM states that “land treatment solely oriented toward meeting livestock forage requirements will be discontinued”. Additionally the reforms have less emphasis on grazing, “yet the BLM wants to charge the rancher more for something that is being made much more difficult to use.”
Before the Babbit rule, fees were based on a formula that reflected annual changes in the costs of production.
“All the legislative history involving FS and BLM fees show that grazing fees were intended to be based on the rancher’s ability to pay, not on some arbitrary value of forage or budget needs of the administrative bureau,” Thomas said of the 1978 legislation.
Ranchers found themselves in court for years fighting the BLM immediately following 1994 regulations.
Idaho Republican Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth-Hage and her husband Wayne Hage, lost their grazing permit on their Nevada ranch property for federal lands in 1991, when the federal government refused to renew it. This incident started a 20-year battle with the BLM. The government also denied access to the Hage family’s water rights, which pre-dated the implementation of the 1934 Taylor Act’s grazing permit requirement, by not allowing access to streams and wells. Eventually, the agency built fences around any water source, so the cattle could not drink. The BLM seized Hage’s cattle and filed a civil trespass action against Hage.
A little over twenty years later, however, seven years after Hage and his wife died, Hage’s children, Wayne Jr. and Ramona Morrison Hage won a victory for the family in court.
Last May, U.S. District Court Judge Robert C. Jones ruled that “the government and the agents of the government in that locale, sometime in the ’70s and ’80s, entered into a conspiracy, a literal, intentional conspiracy, to deprive the Hages of not only their permit grazing rights, for whatever reason, but also to deprive them of their vested property rights under the takings clause, and I find that that’s a sufficient basis to hold that there is irreparable harm if I don’t … restrain the government from continuing in that conduct.”
Judge Jones found the government’s demand for trespass fines and damages from innocent ranchers to be “abhorrent to the Court and I express on the record my offense of my own conscience in that conduct. That’s not just simply following the law and pursuing your management right, it evidences an actual intent to destroy their water rights, to get them off the public lands.”
Jones went further and accused federal government personnel of racketeering under the federal RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations) statute, and accused them of extortion, mail fraud, and fraud, in an attempt “to kill the business of Mr. Hage.”
Morrison Hage, a member of the Nevada Agriculture Board, told Breitbart News that “In the west our governors almost conduct themselves as if they’re a colonial governor and as if they’re only governor over the private land, adding “They take their hands off the steering wheel even though all state power emerge from the state. They take their hands off the steering whenever there’s anything to do with federal land management.”
Harvey Frank Robbins became a Wyoming dude ranch owner in 1994, after buying a piece of land in the state, but Robbins troubles began soon after his purchase. He told Live Stock Weekly, “The government — the Forest Service, the BLM and the Wyoming Game and Fish Department — were trying to buy the ranch,” he explains. “They had these plans of grandeur of having this sanctuary of elk and trout fishing and all the things they could do. Then this guy from Alabama comes in at the last minute, not knowing any of this, and buys this ranch.”
Robbins accused BLM employees of trying to force him to renew an easement to the point of almost putting him out of business. When Robbins refused to do so, according to his lawyer, Karen Budd Falen, BLM employees broke into his house and demanded to be allowed on to his property without a court order, among other things. While Robbins won victories in lower courts, a RICO case against the BLM employees eventually went before the Supreme Court in 2006, where the majority ruled the BLM agents were not liable for the alleged actions against Robbins.
Justice David Souter wrote opinion for the majority, stating, “Souter wrote that “we think [that] any damages remedy for actions by Government employees who push too hard for the Government’s benefit may come better, if at all, through legislation.”
Legislative changes could very well happen in the near future. New legislation to reform how much land the government does own could be headed to Capitol Hill. The meeting of western lawmakers in Utah last week signaled such a plan. Additionally, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott announced the Lone State’s plan to defend its own land from BLM seizures.