The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended

Today’s movement is a radical, perverted version of the 1970s-80s rebellion.

 

“(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.”

While that sounds like an observation from 2016, perhaps nodding toward the armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon by the radical fringe of the latest incarnation of the Sagebrush Rebellion, this passage was actually written in 1982 by then-Colorado Governor Richard Lamm.

He referred to the first of three distinct Sagebrush Rebellions of modern times*: The first flared up in the mid- to late-1970s; the second occurred in the mid-1990s; and the third began not long after President Obama was elected in 2008. Though the first rebellion had ebbed by the early 1980s, and accomplished none of its big national legislative goals, it did leave a lasting imprint on the West. Here are the big takeaways of that first wave:

What sparked it: Many miners, loggers and ranchers of the West were rebelling against “federal colonialism” that came in the form of environmental laws, from the Wilderness Act to the Endangered Species Act to, especially, the Federal Land Policy Management Act. Passed in 1976, FLPMA shifted the Bureau of Land Management’s mandate from one of maximizing extraction from public lands, to preserving — at least to a limited extent — those same lands. To critics, it locked in the “absentee landlord” relationship Washington had with much of the West.

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.

Who were the rebels: The movement had many layers, from local politicians and entire boards of county commissioners, to state legislators and even U.S. congressmen. The leaders included San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner and uranium miner Cal Black — the model for Edward Abbey’s antagonist Bishop Love in his novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang” — Nevada state legislator Dean Rhoads, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, from Utah, and a handful of other politicians, mostly from Nevada and Idaho.

Hatch, Black and Sens. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., and Ted Stevens, R-Ak., headed up the League for the Advancement of States Equal Rights, or LASER, the biggest and most influential rebel organization. The Idaho-based Sagebrush Rebellion, Inc., also touted a large membership. Funding for these groups came mostly from the extractive industry; the Rebellion was hardly a pure grassroots movement. The closest analogues in today’s movement would probably be the corporate-sponsored, right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council and the American Lands Council.

What did they want: Quite simply, they wanted more local control over the land that surrounded them, therefore gaining more control over their own destiny. Some wanted to transfer federal lands to the state, others were okay with the land remaining under the federal umbrella, as long as they got more say in how the feds managed the land. In most cases, this would mean fewer regulations. 

Ronald Reagan supported the Sagebrush Rebels' cause, and they supported him. This appeared in High Country News in 1980.
High Country News

What actions did the rebels take on the ground: They sure as heck didn’t show up, armed to the teeth, and take over a federal facility, or face down federal officials with assault rifles. But there was violence, or at least threats thereof. In 1979, Black told BLM officials that he was to the point “where I’ll blow up bridges, ruins and vehicles. We’re going to start a revolution.” Black never delivered on his promises, but there was widespread vandalism of ancient Puebloan sites in Utah that appeared to be politically motivated. And in 1980, the Grand County, Utah, commissioners led a group of hundreds of locals in bulldozing a road into a Wilderness Study Area in protest of what they saw as a BLM land grab. No one was prosecuted.

On a political level: The first Sagebrush Rebellion was mostly waged in state legislatures, where a number of bills were considered in Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Alaska, Oregon and Arizona, demanding the transfer of federal lands to the states. (Those early bills were mirrored in 2012 and 2013 in Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana and Utah). Hatch also introduced a bill in the Senate that would have allowed state land commissions to take over some 600 million acres of public lands nationwide. Meanwhile, LASER actively courted 1980 presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, who declared himself a rebel.

What happened: Reagan’s election, and the appointment of property-rights advocate James Watt as Secretary of Interior, defused the rebellion. Watt didn’t go for wholesale federal land transfers to the states, but he and his cohorts rolled back regulations and pledged to incorporate more local say into federal land management. There was suddenly far less to rebel against, at least for the extractive industries and their allies.

Meanwhile, consensus among what was left of the Rebellion fell apart. Even many of the Rebellion's leaders understood that state-level land transfer bills were symbolic and had no real legal basis, so they'd get shot down by the courts thanks to the property and supremacy clauses of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Light v. United States. A congressional bill like Hatch's might make it through the courts if it passed, but the chances of that were slim to none.

Besides, when the costs of such transfers were revealed, they didn't seem so great. A study by the Interior Department found that states could end up losing millions of dollars if they were to similarly manage the land and reap the same revenues from it as the feds did. Also, the Payments in Lieu of Taxes program, or PILT, was just kicking in at that time. Under the program, the feds pay counties in order to make up for property taxes that the counties can’t collect from public lands — that money would be lost if the state took over the land. 

Many ranchers and miners had second thoughts about the states taking over federal land, as well. Hardrock miners have nearly unfettered access to federal lands and have to pay no royalties for the minerals they extract. Oil and gas drillers pay low royalties, and ranchers get a prime deal for grazing on BLM lands. They were worried they’d lose those deals under state management — royalties and grazing fees for state lands can be 50 percent higher or more than for federal lands. 

As governor, Lamm occasionally sided with the Rebels. But he came to see the Rebellion as a fool's errand. In The Angry West, he wrote: “… by asserting, even flaunting, a regional independence that never existed, the proud West becomes the foolish West. Worse, by continuing to act today as though it still has no need for the federal government, even as it continues to profit from federal largesse, it compounds its hypocrisy and undermines its credibility.”

Aftermath: While the regional, state-level Rebellion faded after 1981, it just kept on flaring up at the local level, particularly in parts of Nevada and Utah. Black didn’t stop fighting until his death in 1990, and by then the next iteration — Sagebrush Rebellion Part II — was about to ignite.

*There has long been resentment toward the federal land agencies in the West, which gave rise to rebellions here and there prior to 1970. One of the early major such uprising was in the late 1800s, and mostly played out in Colorado. 

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor of High Country News.