When the encroachment by autocratic federal bureaucrats and aggressive federal environmental regulations started to invade the western states, the public chose to rise up against these land-grabbing activities through a rebellion that popularly came to be known as the ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’. This Historyplex post discusses the summary and significance of the Sagebrush Rebellion.
“I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion, Count me in as a rebel.”
― President Ronald Reagan
The federal government has encroached and controlled over vast expanses of ‘public lands’ in the western states of the U.S. Even after the controversial rebellion of 1970, the federal government still commands control over nearly 640 million acres of public land (28 percent of the entire United States) out of which nearly half of all western states (and 62 percent of Alaska) is ‘possessed’ and manipulated by bureaucrats from Washington, D.C.; only 4 percent of other states fall under federal hold. The amazing fact remains that these federal encroachments do not touch national reserves, military establishments, or national monuments but just cover vast areas the federal government thinks it has to control for no real reason.
It was just one legislative act that authorized the federals to possess lands forcefully in the garb of ‘protection of endangered species.’ Let us further discuss President Carter’s so-called ‘War on the West.’
The Sagebrush Rebellion was a defining movement during the 1970s and 1980s against the federal land control, use, and disposal policy in 13 western states, where federal land holdings included between 20% and 85% of a state’s area. Sagebrush Rebels demanded the federal government to give more hold of federally owned Western lands to state and local authorities.
➔ The federal government under the guise of environment protection passed the Wilderness Act on September 3, 1964. The act was drafted by former Wilderness Society Executive Director Howard Zahniser and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Through this act, a total 9.1 million acres in 13 western states, including some of our most iconic wilderness areas like Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, Bridger Wilderness, Wyoming, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana, and Ansel Adams Wilderness, California came under direct federal control.
➔ Use of lands fell in the hands of the National Forest Service (NFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), making the access of such lands heavily restricted. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which further aggravated the situation.
➔ From the year 1977 to 1980, President Jimmy Carter passed legislations that acquired 37.8 million acres of federal land, previously available for commercial use, for national parks, endangered species, and national reserves.
Summary and Significance
➔ The Federal Land Policy and Management Act, or FLPMA, of 1976 stated that all federally owned lands would remain under the federal government control, which meant that public land must be kept in ceaseless trust by the federal government. This statute law crashed the Western hopes that the federal government would eventually turn control of public lands over to local governments, which westerners argued could accord better situations and control than the government representatives in Washington. The bill was contrived under the presumption that the economic profits would prove too enticing to the local authorities, and ecology interests would be neglected in favor of fast cash. While provisions were done to carry on using resources for mining, logging, grazing and ranching, the statute law also included conservation measures and heavily restrained these activities.
➔ The first outburst in the Sagebrush Rebellion occurred in 1979, when the Nevada legislature passed Assembly Bill 413 and placed a claim over Nevada’s right to own and manage 49 million acres of the public lands within its borders. The term ‘Sagebrush Rebellion’ was coined from this state as it is popularly known for sagebrush. In realism, it was a meaningless act, as the federal government did not signify to deliver ownership of the land, and Nevada had no authority to seize it, but it symbolically constituted the anger of many westerners about what they saw as a dictatorial federal presence in the West. The Sagebrush movement spread like wildfire among congressional delegates, state legislatures, and county governments. Congressional delegates from all 11 western states in the continental United States actively promoted themselves as sagebrush rebels. In 1979 and again in 1981, Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) preceded in the Senate a major piece of legislation that called for the “return” and “rightful title” of public lands in the West to the states.
➔ Rural westerners who made a livelihood through the federal lands by activities related to logging, mining, ranching, camping, or developing energy resources lost their livelihoods overnight due to the excessive fees and heavy restrictions. Ranchers were angered by the overzealous environmentalists who preserved the wilderness for endangered species and blocked the livestock from grazing freely. They were further irked by the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit as according to them, it was unneeded in lightly populated areas of the West where it would take a rancher hours to reach the nearest town. Private landowners complained against the denied access to their private properties as it was encroached by federal lands. Timber companies were forced to lay off loggers for lack of access to federal forests where trees rotted on the ground.
➔ Westerners felt that they were simply keepers for the federal government and fought for greater control of local lands. Ideally, the Sagebrush Rebellion sought to bring federal land under state management or to allow purchase by the private sector. Over the years, issues of the Sagebrush Rebellion have included assignations of grazing rights, mining evolution, military land detachment, settlement of selected public lands to hunting and fishing, and the nominated MX Missile defense system. In Nevada, citizens are up in rebellion over plans to establish the controversial MX-missile system in their states. Rebels state that the 24,000 square miles needed for the project would displace a considerable number of ranchers and farmers, and foreclose development of energy and mineral resources. Constrained enforcement of federal environmental laws protecting endangered species of wildlife is encouraging the shrinking of land available for farming, ranching, mining, and timbering.
➔ President Ronald Reagan was a major supporter of the Sagebrush Rebellion, and after being elected, one of the first things his interior department did was to annul earlier land withdrawals that had forestalled mining, oil, and gas drilling on 680,000 acres in 11 Western states, which also included 22,000 acres in the Rio Grande National Forest. The administration also gave corporate farms more admittance to federal irrigation water, which was originally intended for family farmers. The Sagebrush Rebellion ceased under President Reagan when his Secretary of Interior James Watt enforced the Good Neighbor Policy, wherein Western governors and land users were rendered a larger representation in federal land management decisions, even as the overall federal acres were enlarged and greatly elevated.
The matter of the federal government vs. the westerners is still under hot pursuit. In 2014, more than 50 political representatives from nine western states assembled in a legislative summit to commence serious discussions on the process of reassigning federal public lands to the custody of the states. The meeting was held in Utah as the state is the epicenter of western states’ vociferation for a restitution of public land back into their control.