I am usually careful to avoid sharing confidential information about my clients and cases, but this column will be an exception. I just finished a two-day trial in Williston, and with my client’s permission and blessing, I’m going to tell everyone the story of Wayne Hauge.
Wayne came to me over a year ago, and was faced with a company seeking to take an easement on his land by eminent domain. Wayne was not opposed to the project itself, and even offered an easement on other land of his free of charge. But the company wanted an easement on the family homestead, and Wayne said he would not allow any easements on that quarter of land. Period.
Wayne also wanted his day in court to speak his mind, and his message is an important one, so I want to share it with more people than the nine people who decided our case.
Wayne’s great-grandfather Knut built a sod house on that once treeless family homestead, and as a good stalwart Norwegian, he lived there through several North Dakota winters. Wayne shared this story because, as he explained, it was the thought of Knut living through those winters that helped Wayne through many a long night working that same land himself.
The Hauge family lost that land during the dirty thirties, but Wayne’s grandfather later bought the land back on the very steps of where our trial was held at the Williams County Courthouse. A neighbor was at that public auction, and Wayne’s grandfather walked over to him and politely told him to put his checkbook away because, as he put it, “you don’t have the money to buy this land.” And so the Hauge land was back where it belonged.
Wayne thanked me for my help, and told me after the first day of trial, “when I next shake your hand, there will be three generations of my ancestors on my shoulders thanking you as well.” The weight of that gratitude is enough to carry me through an entire career of fighting for farmers and ranchers.
But I am not sharing this story simply because it is a good story. As I told our jury, no one knows that land better than Wayne. When Wayne talks about that land, it is not just Wayne talking; he has three generations of his forebears upon his shoulders speaking through him. It is not just a matter of four generations or over a century of farming on that land; it is the shared and combined experience of families living on and working that land, and passing off their knowledge, and the wisdom that only comes from a family that has worked upon and lived off the land together.
Our family farms and ranches are not just the backbone of our economy. They are the backbone of our culture, and our community. They are our connection to the land, and without them we are all naught but vagabonds.
So although there may be times that we need to make sacrifices for development and the public good, we also need to remember that some land is sacred. Some places need to be off limits to development. I hear a lot of energy companies speak in terms of the “market rate” for an acre of land when they take or damage it and have to pay the piper, but too often they miss the most important point. Sometimes, our land is priceless, and it is not for sale.