The Sagebrush Rebels ride again -- and again


A decade ago, I caught a scene in one of the West's longest-running political melodramas: The Sagebrush Rebels Ride Again. I was in a dingy hotel room in Denver, surfing the television for something worthwhile to watch, when I stumbled upon C-SPAN. There was my congressman, Republican Scott McInnis, standing on the floor of the House of Representatives, railing passionately about the "War on the West" being waged by an unholy alliance of Clinton administration lackeys and environmentalists.

I don't recall McInnis' exact words, but I remember his righteous tone; he zeroed in on the Clinton administration's push to create new national monuments on public lands. These monuments were undemocratic and elitist, he said, because they shut out the true Westerners - ranchers, miners, loggers and off-road vehicle enthusiasts - from the decision-making process, and because they would drive these hard-working people off the land. For the half hour I watched, McInnis gave not a word to constituents like me who value the public lands as much for their wildness and beauty as for their mineral wealth or livestock forage.

I was amazed that a politician in the last years of the 20th century could espouse such a simple, stereotypical view of the West. But I shouldn't have been. As Ray Ring reports in this issue, angry retaliation against environmental regulations has a long and storied history in the West, from the ranchers who almost succeeded in privatizing the public lands back in the 1940s, to Ronald Reagan's first Interior secretary, James Watt, who tried to turn back the clock of regulation for all extractive users of the public lands. Even today, there remains a fairly robust group of lawyers devoted to defending traditional Western interests against what they see as excessive governmental regulation and the cult of environmentalism.

Though the Sagebrush Rebels have had a long run in the West, their list of accomplishments is ultimately rather meager. As Ring notes, many of their most trumpeted recent legal victories - over endangered species, land-use regulations and public-land management - are either not holding up well in higher courts or are yielding ambiguous results.

Which brings up the question: Will the Sagebrush Rebels eventually ride off into the sunset? Not in my lifetime. As long as we have large chunks of public land to fight over, we will see new insurrections. But we have crossed a threshold in the West from which we will not return. A majority of Westerners - and even most of their elected officials - understand that the quality of life we enjoy can be overrun by development or marred by overuse, whether by gas drillers, strip-mall developers or out-of-control off-road vehicles. They realize that the public lands are a rare and still relatively unspoiled national resource that needs to be conserved for everyone.

I am reminded of this growing maturity every time I drive past one of our newest conservation areas, located near the Utah border. Its creation was spearheaded by a foresighted congressman who collaborated with environmentalists to create a lasting legacy for all of us, including himself. The name, though, still grates on me: McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Dec 10, 2007 12:13 PM

Yes, Watt's Sagebrush Rebellion died a fast death. A plan by the the X Sec. of the Interior to rid us of our public land in the west. But it was the surface not much talk at first about the subsurface mineral estate which would remain in federal ownership.But the subsurface had much to do with the defeat of the Sagebrush Rebellion as well. If I recall James Watt got fired!Yes they are coming back now . They want our public land again this time for the very wealthy for exclusvive hunting. Cabela's is making a run for it in Montana with real estate deals and they want our public lands on those 'game ranches' that will be created. Cattle ranching is a front. But the wildlife on private and public land is a public resource Cabela's. Watch the creation of game ranches in Montana being promoted by Cabela's. It's a public land and public wildlife grab. Let them know what you think by tossing your Cabela's catalog and credit cards.We treasure our public wildlife,public land and public land access to our wildlife resources Cabela's and we don't like high fences to fence public wildlife in to privatize. We also have the Unlawful Inclosures Act of 1885 a federal law and now the Presidents Executive Order 13443 signed August 16,2007-Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation" which is very good and bi-partisan. Government agencies must implement the E.O. and" change programs and activities that have a measurable effect on land management and wildlife management". That would include these slick real estate deals involving public land and wildlife in Montana.   

Dec 19, 2007 03:49 PM

James Watt, Julie McDonald and all the others are still wrapped in the Jeffersonian myth of unlimited Western lands and water and the right of 'ruralists' to use up the unlimited resources that Tom ordered Lewis and Clark to report as limitless; leading to unconscionably myth driven development followed by the uprooters of sagebrush and understanding of the nature of the land by the greedy and foolish ever since.

Dec 21, 2007 01:53 PM

As Republican governor of Utah, Mike Leavitt was one of the prime-movers of the sagebrush rebellion. This article says his brother, David Leavitt, is challenging Chris Cannon, another prominent Republican sagebrush rebel, for his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although the brothers are being secretive, since Chris Cannon is anti-environmental. his fellow conservative must be taking issue with him on immigration issues. Chris Cannon supports temporary work visas, resident tuition for the children of undocumented workers and other measures the white supremist conservatives don't like. He got such a scare from these people the last election when they put up big billboards that said "Chris Cannon wants to give amnesty to illegal immigrants.", he rushed right out and arrested and deported a bunch of Mexicans to fix his image but I guess it didn't work as well as when he "voted against a measure that would have allowed the U.S. post office in Rachel Carson's hometown of Sprindale, Pennsylvania, to be named in her honor." (sltrib 5-12-2007) Rachel Carson wrote the popular book "Silent Spring" which gave impetus to the movement which banned DDT. I guess these Utah Republicans dislike Mexicans more than eagles. They recently took control of the large "Brigham City Bird Refuge" from the federal government and are involved in a campaign to dam the river that feeds the refuge. Look for Mr. Cannon to go out there and start arresting migratory birds to prove his loyalty to the cause of conservative America.