When did the following take place?
A conservative wave sweeps the nation, and
Republicans take control of the government. Western ranchers,
furious about a proposed increase in the grazing fee on public
lands, complain about the bloated federal
Members of Congress from the 12
Western states decide they have had enough of Eastern domination
and introduce bills calling for millions of acres of public lands
to be transferred to the states.
answer, of course, is 1994-95.
But the same
scenario played out in 1929-30. And again in 1945-47. With a few
minor changes, it also describes 1979-80.
cycle," explains Bill Robbins, a Western historian and associate
dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University in
Corvallis. "It usually reaches its peak or zenith in more
conservative national moods."
Utah Rep. Jim
Hansen and Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas are leaders of the latest
uprising. Following an unsuccessful proposal by Interior Secretary
Bruce Babbitt to hike grazing fees, the two Republicans introduced
companion bills in Congress calling for the Bureau of Land
Management to offer nearly 270 million acres of public lands and
all its minerals to the states.
former director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, says
giving BLM lands to the states would be the first step in
transferring the public's resources into private
"The American public would be the losers,"
Exactly the same arguments on both sides
have been made for decades:
General Robert E. Winbourne argued for a land transfer, saying the
people in his state "favor the adoption of any program that will
tend to limit or curtail the system of bureaucracy that has grown
That led Bernard DeVoto, one of
the loudest critics of the idea during the 1945-1947 cycle, to
describe it as "the biggest land grab in American history."
James Muhn, a land-law historian for the BLM in
Denver who has studied these cycles, says the Hansen-Thomas bill is
doomed to failure if the old axiom is true about history repeating
But, Muhn said, the outpouring of anger
that prompted all previous land-transfer proposals has forced
federal land managers to make concessions to the
This pattern is so well established
that R. McGreggor Cawley, an associate professor of political
science at the University of Wyoming, doubts whether ranchers and
other public-land users are even serious about transferring public
lands to the states.
He contends these uprisings
are mostly demonstrations of the West's political muscle designed
to keep federal land managers in line.
contends that Americans have argued about their public lands since
1780, when the original 13 colonies entered into their first
confederation. One of the most hotly debated questions was how to
handle the frontier between the Appalachian Mountains and
Mississippi River, where several states claimed
The land eventually was ceded to the
federal government "to be disposed of for the common benefit of the
Federal control of that land was
challenged in the 1820s and 1830s when states in the Midwest began
entering the union. They wanted control over all public lands
within their boundaries. Congress insisted that the federal
government retain control.
The first serious
attempt to turn these lands over to the states started in the
1920s, when Sen. R.M. Stanfield, R-Ore., became concerned about
attempts to raise grazing fees on U.S. Forest Service
Stanfield held hearings throughout the
West at which ranchers were invited to air their grievances against
the federal government. These meetings spawned a proposal for the
states to take over the public lands.
Herbert Hoover, a strong states' rights advocate, backed the idea
in a letter sent to a Western governors' meeting in Salt Lake City
on Aug. 27, 1929. He offered to turn over to the states all of the
federal government's desert lands, but none of the minerals beneath
"It may be stated at once that our Western
states have long since passed from their swaddling clothes and are
today more competent to manage much of these affairs than is the
federal government. Moreover, we must seek every opportunity to
retard the expansion of federal bureaucracy and to place our
communities in control of their own destinies," he wrote the
After three years of study, the
governors rejected the offer. They saw no reason to take the barren
desert lands if they weren't accompanied by the valuable mineral
Utah Gov. George H. Dern in 1932
summed up his position this way: "The states already own, in their
school-land grants, millions of acres of this same kind of land,
which they can neither sell nor lease, and which is yielding no
income. Why should they want more of this precious heritage of
Although the land wasn't transferred,
the controversy prompted the Forest Service to impose a much
smaller grazing-fee increase than originally
The issue arose again in the early
1940s when the Grazing Service (a predecessor of the BLM) decided
its newly authorized grazing fee wasn't high enough. The Grazing
Service wanted to triple it.
An enraged Sen. Pat
McCarran, D-Nev., followed the example of Stanfield and encouraged
ranchers to vent their anger in a series of public hearings around
The hearings led to a 1946 bill by Sen.
Edward V. Robertson, R-Wyo., to turn over virtually all federal
lands to the state. The bill went nowhere, but it was followed by
legislative maneuvering that not only blocked the proposed
grazing-fee increase but slashed the operating budget of the
The next serious proposal arose
during the "Sagebrush Rebellion" of the late 1970s, when Westerners
again demanded autonomy. It wasn't grazing fees that prompted this
rebellion, but rising environmental and management
Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, R, championed
the rebels' cause, introducing a bill in 1979 that would have
transferred the surface of BLM lands to the
The Hatch bill died quietly after the
election of President Ronald Reagan and his appointment of James
Watt as Interior secretary.
Will this issue ever
Political scientist Cawley says
there is no chance of resolution until Americans come to agreement
on what they want from their public lands.
lands in the late 1700s were a source of revenue to pay off the
Revolutionary War debt, he says. As the nation began its Western
expansion, public lands became the source of new farms, ranches and
cities. When the homesteading period ended, public lands became a
source of raw materials for a rapidly industrializing
Attitudes are changing again, with
growing numbers calling for the preservation of public lands for
their recreational or ecological values. It's a trend familiar to
anyone who has followed the recent wilderness debate in Utah, where
environmentalists want 5.7 million acres of wilderness and county
officials are willing to settle for no more than a million acres.
(See story page 10.)
Cawley says he sees no early
resolution - just gridlock.
The writer works for
the Salt Lake