In the 1970s, the environmental movement was gaining great sway. Congress had easily agreed to the Clean Air Act Amendments as well as the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, and it was under President Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was established. These were not, at the time, particularly partisan measures. However, an increased push to conserve land under federal ownership was underway, and this, combined with other policies, would alienate the West politically.
In 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which officially shifted the goal of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from being permissive in allowing landowners and ranchers to extract from land to conservation. In truth, however, this act just made official what had been going on for years and had really began with the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, with significant limitations being placed on grazing by the 1950s and 1960s. In 1974, the National Resources Defense Council prevailed in a lawsuit against the Secretary of the Interior after arguing that public lands were overgrazed, and thus environmental impact statements on grazing are needed (Library of Congress). All these developments may not have been such a problem had the election results been different in 1976. President Jimmy Carter and the West never seemed to get on…in that election he lost every Western state to Ford.
The Carter Administration’s policies rubbed many Westerners the wrong way as they seemed to often work to the region’s detriment. As Jonathan Thompson (2016) notes, “To the rebels, President Jimmy Carter was an especially onerous landlord. On the one hand he tried to cut off funding to a slate of federal water projects pending throughout the West (thus depriving the region of its lifeblood), and on the other wanted to turn large portions of the region into an MX missile launching pad (cutting off other access to that land and making us a target for the Soviet Union). While Lamm wouldn’t exactly count himself as a Sagebrush Rebel, he also revolted against the federal landlord when Carter and Congress implemented an $88 billion synfuels subsidy program that led to water-guzzling, destructive oil shale development in the Interior West.”
The Sagebrush Rebellion attracted many in the West, especially ranchers, mine-owners, and politicians. Senators Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) were the most notable supporters, as they were, with prominent uranium miner and San Juan County, Utah Commissioner Cal Black, leaders of League for the Advancement of States Equal Rights (LASER). LASER and other rebels wanted more say in the use of western lands and some wanted return of control of these lands from the feds to the states. In 1979, the movement had its first political success when the Nevada State Legislature passed the “Sagebrush Rebellion Act”, which declared public lands in Nevada to be the property of the state and held that federal ownership of 86% of the state was unconstitutional. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming the next year passed their own Sagebrush bills. California and Washington did so as well but the former was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown and the latter was subsequently voted down by the voters. Undersecretary of the Interior James Joseph expressed the view of the Carter Administration on the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1979, “The old interests which have for so long dictated public land policies have lost control. Many of you have been saying for years that more than stockmen have a stake in how the public lands are grazed; more than miners have a right to suggest how, when and where mining will be done on the public lands; more than loggers care – and may rightfully comment on how our timber resources are managed. There is nothing particularly mysterious, I now believe, in what is being called the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Indeed, it is the time-honored response of the fellow who upon finding he can no longer dictate the rules of the game decided to take his ball and go home” (Nelson, 30). The Carter Administration was aiming to change the game on how the West was viewed in the name of accommodating other interests, including some newer residents of the West more interested in environmentalism and recreation, but these policies were working against the interests of more than just the powers-that-were. Democratic Governor Richard Lamm of Colorado, not a Sagebrush Rebel himself, stated on the matter, “with regard to public lands, and issues related to public lands, the Carter administration was a western nightmare” (Nelson, 30). In 1980, the Sagebrush rebels attracted a powerful ally…indeed their most powerful yet: Ronald Reagan.
During Reagan’s campaign, he stated, “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel” (Bump). However, in terms of practical policy, the Sagebrush rebels came up short. Proposals to transfer federal lands back to the states proved unfeasible per the results of studies commissioned by Governors Scott Matheson (D-Utah) and Richard Lamm (D-Colo.). These found that the states would take on net annual financial burdens if they indeed got what they wished with the Sagebrush bills. Of the thirteen western states, only New Mexico, North Dakota, and Wyoming would gain in revenue if all land was transferred, and only North Dakota would slightly gain if it was surface only and not resources as well. There were many, however, who sought a way between the Carter Administration’s approach and those who wanted all the lands transferred to the states. One of these people was James G. Watt.
After Reagan was elected president, he nominated and got confirmed Watt as Interior Secretary. He, like many others, thought of the Sagebrush Rebellion as a protest movement against federal land-management policies, especially under the Carter Administration, rather than possessing a set of concrete policy proposals. Watt held on the Sagebrush Rebellion, “I do not think that [transfer of federal lands to states] is needed. That is not the first order of priority, certainly. What we must do is defuse the Sagebrush Rebellion. The Sagebrush Rebellion has been caused by an arrogant attitude by the Department of Interior land managers, who have refused to consult and include in their decision-making process State and Local governments and land users” (Nelson, 33). Ultimately, it was the policies of Interior Secretary James G. Watt, which were accommodating to western states by transferring hundreds of thousands of acres from the federal government to the states and made the department more receptive to the concerns of the West, that proved satisfactory to most Sagebrush rebels. Environmentalists had a different take on Watt, seeing him as one of the most anti-environment cabinet officers in modern political history for his pro-development policies and his restrained use of the Endangered Species Act.
Governor Richard Lamm, not on friendly terms with Carter on the West, had this to say about the Sagebrush Rebellion in 1982, “(The) Sagebrush (Rebellion) comes into relief as what it really is — a murky fusion of idealism and greed that may not be heroic, nor righteous, nor even intelligent. Only one certainty exists — that Sagebrush is a revolt against federal authority, and that its taproot grows deep in the century’s history. Beyond this, it is incoherent. Part hypocrisy, part demagoguery, partly the honest anger of honest people, it is a movement of confusion and hysteria and terrifyingly destructive potential. What it is no one fully understands. What it will do no one can tell” (Thompson). A lot of the Sagebrush Rebellion, in truth, can be attributed to the Carter Administration’s policies on land use in the West, which were a hodgepodge of policies that worked to environmentalism, national defense, and could even be harmful to the environment (synfuels). All, however, worked to the detriment of the West, from those who were established and wealthy to those who were not, as the Carter Administration’s policies served to limit economic growth in these regions.
Bump, P. (2016, January 4). That time Ronald Reagan joined a ‘rebellion’ – but still couldn’t change federal land laws. The Washington Post.
Nelson, R.H. (1984). Why the Sagebrush Revolt Burned Out. AEI Journal on Government and Society, 8(3).
The Sagebrush Rebellion, 1960-1982. Library of Congress.
Thompson, J. (2016, January 14). The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended. High Country News.