"We realized we needed to counter what the liberal, socialist (environmental) groups were doing," says James Watt, who earned his law degree in his home state at the University of Wyoming. Watt served as the first boss of Mountain States Legal, running it until 1980, when Reagan picked him to be secretary of Interior. "Environmentalists - I'm not talking about the members of the groups, I'm talking about the leaders - were really not concerned about the environment. They were concerned about the form of government we would have." They wanted big government that was too intrusive on individuals' freedom, Watt says.
While Watt held the throne at Interior, he supported ranching, mining and logging. Though he resigned after only 33 months atop Interior, he's a Sagebrush hero. Now retired and shuttling between homes in Arizona and Wyoming, Watt still talks a fiery game. The battle rages on, he says, because environmentalists and their allies in government are still too "dictatorial ... (they) should work with the users, the locals who will benefit from using these public lands."
Mountain States Legal scored another apparent political victory in 2001, when Gale Norton became George W. Bush's Interior secretary. She'd worked for the lawfirm in the early 1980s, and though she was less abrasive than Watt, her ideology echoed his during her tenure at Interior.
But Norton and Watt left little lasting imprint on the ground - nothing on the scale of the bedrock environmental laws, nothing even as noticeable as President Bill Clinton's environmental legacy, which includes the restoration of Western wolves and 23 new or expanded national monuments, orchestrated by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt.
Watt quit amid controversy over his frank manner of speaking, and Congress and environmentalist lawsuits stalled many of his policies. "Watt was certainly noticeable as a symbol, he did personify the Sagebrush Rebellion and the takeover (of Interior) by Western resource industries, but surprisingly little happened" during his reign, says Charles Wilkinson, a University of Colorado law professor who served as a Clinton adviser and has authored 13 books about law and natural resource issues.
Norton, who left Interior in 2006 and is now with Shell Oil in Denver, has a one-dimensional legacy: oil and gas drilling, which, thanks to the federal backing she provided, goes whole-hog in industry sweet spots around the Rocky Mountains. Still, "she was an unimportant secretary of Interior," Wilkinson says, "because the public-lands policy of this administration is being made by Vice President Dick Cheney, not the secretary's office." Cheney, with his longtime roots in the oil industry, by many accounts wields more power than President Bush. "It didn't matter who was secretary of Interior."
IN THE NATION'S COURTROOMS, the Sagebrush Rebel lawyers win and lose more cases than can fit in any magazine story. The lawyers believe they're generally doing good work. But their impact is as unclear as it was in the Department of Interior.
The mission of Mountain States Legal Foundation is summed up by the title of William Perry Pendley's latest book: Warriors for the West: Fighting Bureaucrats, Radical Groups, and Liberal Judges on America's Frontier. Pendley has been the firm's president and chief lawyer for 18 years. His staff includes about a half-dozen other lawyers, headquartered in a small office park in suburban Denver, across from an insurance agency, a dentist and Pilates Plus. An American flag on a tall pole marks the building's entrance, with a plaque that says "Old Glory."
Inside the headquarters there are more plaques engraved with names: Rocky Mountain family oil companies (Yates, Kennedy, McMurry, Anschutz, Dugan), notable ranching operations (Page Land and Cattle Co.), loggers and an aircraft-tour company. They're some of the donors who support Mountain States' work, most of which is done on a pro bono basis - for free, or a relatively small cost to clients.
At his desk several weeks ago, Mountain States Legal's Pendley wore a blue Oxford shirt, gray slacks, and black cowboy boots. He had a short, brush haircut, pale blue eyes, chiseled face. He'd decorated his office with mementoes of his five years in the Marine Corps and several years in the Reagan administration, along with mining and cowboy knickknacks and samples of his kids' artwork. Born and raised in Cheyenne, son of a union pipefitter, Pendley has college degrees in political science and economics, as well as a University of Wyoming law degree. He's 62 years old and no longer works seven days a week; an evangelical Christian, he takes Sundays off.
Asked whether his religious beliefs come into his law practice, Pendley says yes: "Some of it is, 'What would the Lord do? How do you treat human beings?' " But his religion, he says, doesn't determine which cases he takes to court. His book talks about "environmental elitists sitting in their glass towers in New York City and San Francisco, their ivory towers in prestigious colleges," and warns they're a "juggernaut" trying to destroy local cultures and economies in the West.
Pendley is a kind of modern Western celebrity. He appears on TV and radio talk shows, rural libraries circulate his book, and he's a popular speaker at conventions of mining and ranching groups. When Mountain States Legal presses a lawsuit, it creates excitement in the press and affected communities, due in part to Pendley's reputation as well as the Norton/Watt connection. The firm's biggest win, according to Pendley, was a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court ruling against affirmative action in highway contracts.
Among its environmental cases, Mountain States won a $2 million settlement for a New Mexico landowner who handled wastewater from oil and gas wells; the feds gave him permission to dump the wastewater in potholes on federal land and then withdrew it, causing him to lose his business. The federal claims court ruled in 2001 that it was an unfair taking, and eventually the government grudgingly paid him.
But overall, in the dozens of environmental cases Pendley profiles in his book, Mountain States Legal has lost far more often than it's won.
The environmental cases tend to be especially difficult. They're almost always three-sided: The rebels sue the government and then environmentalist lawyers jump in, or environmentalists sue the government - demanding tough regulations - and the rebels jump in. They have to climb mountains of administrative records and find their way through the fog of environmental laws, which often contain contradictory phrases meant to placate different interests.
"It's very difficult to sue the government and win these kinds of cases" - whether the plaintiff is a rebel or an environmentalist, says law professor Wilkinson. In an analysis of all lawsuits filed against the U.S. Forest Service from 1989 to 2002, on the basis of the 1976 National Forest Management Act, the plaintiffs won only 28 percent of the time, for instance. "The courts give heavy deference to the government agencies," Wilkinson says.
In cases with wide implications, Mountain States Legal has tried to block Clinton's wolves and monuments, discourage the Colorado Division of Wildlife's lynx-reintroduction effort, overturn a ban on oil drilling in a million acres of national forest along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front, and kill a public-access law that says anyone can walk stream banks on private property in Montana. Representing oil companies and off-road drivers and ranchers and other property-rights advocates, Mountain States Legal lost all those court cases.
I'm after more than win-loss statistics, though; I'm interested in the psychology. After losing one case, Pendley vowed: "We'll keep tilting at this windmill until we find a way to go to court and win." When I ask him if he sees himself as a Don Quixote figure, he says no. But he adds, "We take the impossible cases - the cases no one else will take. If these were easy cases, private attorneys would be representing these people," because private attorneys look for "slam dunks" and easy payoffs. He repeats the image: "We're really on a Mission Impossible challenge," he says - an attitude that makes any victory noteworthy. Listening to himself, he laughs, and calls himself "an eternal optimist."