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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...