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for people who care about the West

The revolt that wouldn’t die

The latest Sagebrush Rebellion flare-up in Nevada was unusually fierce.


In early April, armed federal agents assembled on 578,724 acres of Bureau of Land Management land in Clark County, Nev., temporarily closed to the public, and began rounding up hundreds of cattle that Cliven Bundy had illegally grazed there for 20 years, racking up $1 million in fees. When one of Bundy's sons was arrested for refusing to leave the closure area, the "range war" began to rumble. Armed supporters arrived in droves. Five days in, another Bundy son kicked a police dog and was tased. Bundy ally Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff, later told Fox News: "We were actually strategizing to put all the women up at the front. If they are going to start shooting, it's going to be women that are going to be televised all across the world getting shot by these rogue federal officers." The risk of violence from Bundy's supporters appeared high, and the BLM ended the roundup after 16 days.

Until last month, few Americans had heard of Bundy's battle with the BLM, and many were likely surprised that grazing fees could still spark an Old West-style standoff, complete with drawn guns. But to many Westerners, the clash looked familiar – evidence that the legendary Sagebrush Rebellion was still alive, if not exactly thriving. Under Bundy, in fact, it's more radical than ever.

The original rebellion ignited in Nevada when the Legislature passed a bill in 1979 demanding that the BLM cede its lands to the state. Four other Western states followed. Anti-federal sentiment wasn't new in the state, where the federal government controls more than 84 percent of land. But following the passage of the nation's bedrock environmental laws, it intensified, and became distinctly anti-environmental in tone.

The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which increased the BLM's ability to restrict grazing, particularly galled Sagebrush Rebels, many of whom were ranchers. The act affirmed that the federal estate would remain public, officially ending the parceling off of public lands to homesteaders and others. It also inspired new regulations, including mandatory environmental impact statements for each of the BLM's grazing districts. The agency measures grazing in terms of "animal unit months," the forage necessary to sustain one cow and calf for one month. Between 1959 and 1978, animal unit months available to ranchers on BLM land declined in most Western states, including by 41 percent in Nevada. University of Wyoming professor and Sagebrush Rebellion expert Gregg Cawley says much of the decline was attributable to environmental concerns, like overgrazing, and laws like the Endangered Species Act and FLPMA.

The Sagebrush Rebels found powerful sympathizers in President Ronald Reagan and Interior Secretary James Watt, who imposed a moratorium on BLM grazing reductions, and declared that all of those environmental impact statements were based on "faulty science," effectively blocking corrective action when such reports found damage from grazing. "The original Sagebrush Rebellion used the transfer of federal lands to the state as a strategy to get the BLM to take their complaints about federal land management seriously," says Cawley. No one expected a land transfer to occur. "(But) their strategy was successful to the extent that they caused a reassessment of BLM management policies." Within five years, the rebellion mostly fizzled out.

But the embers smoldered: Western legislatures continue to pass symbolic bills calling for state control of federal land. And now there's Bundy. He shares the Sagebrush Rebels' distaste for federal power but goes further: unequivocally rejecting federal authority and land ownership. "He refuses to recognize the legitimacy of the federal government altogether," Cawley says. In contrast, "(the Sagebrush Rebels') original intent was to take this issue to the Supreme Court," he explains – working for change within the system.

Some likely sympathizers have hesitated to get involved. The Nevada Cattlemen's Association supported the Sagebrush strategy for seeking change through the courts but rejected Bundy's lawless approach when pressed by reporters. The association's response is "a thunderous statement," according to Western historian Charles Wilkinson, that proves Bundy is "an outcast in the community."

Anti-federal sentiment is ever-present in the West. "It's just that occasionally, depending on how heavy the hand of the federal government has been, we get an outburst of more intense reaction," as notorious Sagebrush Rebel Wayne Hage once said. For Bundy's supporters, which include extreme militia groups and – briefly – a few Tea Party U.S. senators, public-lands policy isn't really the issue. Gripes about grazing fees blend with anger over Obamacare and other claims of federal overreach. For them, says Cawley, the roundup proved that "the federal government is just a bunch of jack-booted thugs."

It's Bundy who is acting the thug, though – obeying only select laws, and demanding for free a privilege other ranchers pay for. "He's a complete outlaw," says Wilkinson, "and it's ridiculous to treat that as some high cause."