How the West was won, and won, and ...

  • Herbert Hoover


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 bureaucracy.

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.

A correct 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.

"It's a 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.

Brant Calkin, 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 hands.

"The American public would be the losers," he says.

Exactly the same arguments on both sides have been made for decades:

Colorado Attorney 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 in Washington."

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 itself.

But, Muhn said, the outpouring of anger that prompted all previous land-transfer proposals has forced federal land managers to make concessions to the ranchers.

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.

Muhn 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 territory.

The land eventually was ceded to the federal government "to be disposed of for the common benefit of the United States."

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 lands.

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.

President 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 them.

"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 governors.

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 resources.

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 desert?"

Although the land wasn't transferred, the controversy prompted the Forest Service to impose a much smaller grazing-fee increase than originally proposed.

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 West.

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 Grazing Service.

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 regulations.

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 states.

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 be resolved?

Political scientist Cawley says there is no chance of resolution until Americans come to agreement on what they want from their public lands.

Public 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 society.

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 Tribune.

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