In a long running case involving a Forest Service grazing permit, the Ninth Circuit recently reversed a district court decision which the appellate court felt “ruled almost entirely against the government” and was “contrary to longstanding binding precedent.” In the case, the government brought an action for damages and injunctive relief against E. Wayne Hage and his son, alleging that they had grazed cattle on federal lands without proper authorization. While the district court found they had no authorization, it effectively ruled against the government by finding that the Hages’ water rights provided a defense to the government’s trespass allegations.
The Ninth Circuit held that, while the Hages’ water rights provided them with an easement to access water sources on federal lands, they still had to obtain a permit to graze cattle on those lands. Because they grazed their cattle on the federal lands without a grazing permit, the court held that they had trespassed. The Ninth Circuit did not agree with the district court that the Hages’ grazing activity was authorized pursuant to as easement by necessity. The Ninth Circuit then directed the district court to calculate the appropriate damages incurred by the government.
The Ninth Circuit also found that the district court judge “harbored animus toward the federal agencies,” and ordered that the case proceed before a new judge. The Ninth Circuit noted that the district court judge started the case with the comment “Bureau of Land Management, you come in with the standard arrogant, arbitrary, capricious attitude that I recognize in many of these cases.” The appellate court also concluded that the district court abused its powers by holding two federal employees in contempt for their conduct which the appellate court found was ordinary and lawful.