Sagebrush Rebellion slipping from memory

Much of recent history does not show up in internet searches. Some of the holes are being filled, as copyrights expire and older sources get digitized — but that means that a lot of what happened in the late 1970s, in the 1980s and 1990s escapes notice of history searches.

Whatever happened to the Sagebrush Rebellion?

My view is biased — I got stuck on the front lines, knowing a bit about the environment and working for Sen. Orrin Hatch from 1978 through 1985. While working with people who think it’s good policy to aim a D-9 Caterpillar through a wilderness area has its drawbacks, there were a lot of great people and great places working that issue.

Orrin Hatch’s website doesn’t even mention the stuff any more, though it features a nice photo of Delicate Arch, which some of his supporters threatened to bulldoze or dynamite to make a point. Paul Laxalt is dead long gone from office, and (in 2011) nearing 90.  Jake Garn is out of the Senate, and never really was all that interested in it. I had extensive files on the ins and outs, but I unwisely loaned them to the guy who took over the issue for Hatch after Jim Black left the staff, and they disappeared.

The issues have never died. It’s in the news again — see this article in the Los Angeles Times in April. But the old history? Where can it be found?

If you have sources, especially internet sources, please send them my way.

Sagebrush Rebellion

Poor copy of a photo from U.S. News and World Report, Dec. 1, 1980

9 Responses to Sagebrush Rebellion slipping from memory

  1. Jay says:

    The equal footing doctrine was one of the underlying legal theories of the Sagebrush Rebellion. It arose under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 which created the framework whereby states would subsequently be admitted into the union. One of the concepts was that new states would come into the union on an “equal footing” with existing states.

    The idea is that western states, denied the same land tenure as previous states where there was not the same degree of percentage of federal ownership were not admitted on an equal footing.

    All my life I have heard the argument about private destruction of the west. While acknowledging that there were indeed private abuses, the degree thereof has been the subject of considerable revisionism. Further, the notion that government can manage better is certainly not supported by contemporary evidence.

    As an example, the Navajo Nation has for decades overgrazed land; however, the fence line between Chaco Canyon National Monument and the Reservation–which has been fenced off since, I believe, the 1920s–shows the overgrazed land to be better off than the ungrazed area.

    Reading Coronado’s journal, Escalante, and others, I remain unconvinced that the west was totally ravaged by private interests. I’ve read many early journals and land descriptions and looked at many old photographs. “Playing God in Yellowstone”, Alston Chase’s book, also has some interesting historical information. Bottom line: you and I do not agree on the historical record.

    The notion that government has a better track record than private interests in managing the west is not supported by the current historical record. While I acknowledge the effects of drought (and you and I will disagree on anthropomorphic global warming) the 50 tons of litter per acre on the forest floor coupled with stem counts of over 1,000 per acre in contrast to historical counts of 30 – 50, have been much larger contributors.

    The five largest fires in Arizona’s history have been in the last 9 years. I’m 60 and have watched the forests become chocked with dog-hair pine thickets to the degree that one cannot walk through the forest.

    I’ve also watched the White Mountain Apache Tribe and their continued logging, grazing, and brush management. During the drought, they have not experienced the devastating fires which burn with increased frequency and severity on the adjacent unmanaged forest.

    I’ve delalt with “land managers” in three states–both Forest Service and BLM–and find them to be absolutely incompetent, no better than the worst private land managers I have encountered. A contemporary look at privately managed forests in both the U.S. and Europe would support my contention.

    The underlying theory is that private interests are financially motivated and therefore incapable of making good management decisions. I do not accept that underlying premise anymore than I do the premise that government is more wise, capable, and not susceptible to ulterior motives.

    On a more philosophical basis, centralized planning is not a management tool. Nobel Prize winner Frederick Von Hayek’s book “Road to Serfdom” deals it a devastating blow. While not addressing land management specifically, the principles are the same.



  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Remind me: What is the equal footing doctrine? How does it affect forest and rangeland management?

    Your argument for local and private ownership has a key historical flaw: Management of the land by private landowners has a long, sad history, and management by the states is not better. I noted earlier that, in 1932, to save money, Herbert Hoover offered to transfer all the (now) Bureau of Land Management lands to the states, to be sold off as originally intended. The states all refused, most citing the damage to the lands by private interests. We were in a hole in 1900, and it’s not a hole we’ve dug out of yet.

    I’ve often wondered what would be the rational way to manage a large ranch or any other property next door to a forest where fires have been prevented so effectively over the past 80 years — well, really longer, since the 1910 catastrophes. I don’t have a good answer that is either easy or cheap.

    You should probably pick up Timothy Egan’s recent great book on human effects on the climate, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. I haven’t read it yet, but on the basis of his last book, The Worst Hard Time, I recommend Egan’s research and writing.

    It’s not hard to see, in retrospect, a half-dozen things the Forest Service maybe should have done differently. The difficulties include nasty little questions like, “Where are your comments on the Forest Management Plan for the tracts surrounding your ranch?” and “Of course you can establish the trail of your correspondence with at least the last 20 years’ occupants of the Congressional seats representing your district and state, with your urging that they expand the Forest Service budget to manage the lands well, to thin the dead drop in the forests around inhabited areas and other areas of economic human activity, yes?”

    And there is this: We face record dry conditions in several places in the west — and east, really. Well, let’s be honest: The weather is screwed up, and there have been record fires around the world, even in areas where there is no forest litter. These weather extremes are connected to climate change. I know of no one in the old Sagebrush Rebellion forces in politics who thinks we should spend a dime in study or forecasting, let alone remediation, to alter this climate change. I hope I’m wrong, but I think the Tea Party is that psychotic on issues like this, and the other political lines are drawn too hard to get the actions that would make sense.

    Good management of forest lands should be a federal priority. We all have a lot tied up in the lands and their management, use and appropriate harvest. But there is little political will to do the necessary things on any front in the U.S. right now.

    The words of the old union activists on how to get effective change still ring true: “Organize. Organize. Organize.”

    There are easily a thousand examples of great initiatives by private landowners who roped the federal and state authorities into going along with a good plan. There are a few brilliant examples of private landowners setting sterling examples of what to do with land preservation and conservation (never forget that Teton National Park was a private reserve held by Laurance Rockefeller, for a lot of years that the federal government thought it silly to make the lands federal, and a park). Good luck in manufacturing another such example.

    Where is the management plan for your forest made? Who does it, now? What is the plan for deadfall and other debris in your local forest?

    You know, there’s a good chance that USDA is already on board with your ideas. Check this site to begin:


  3. Jay says:

    Perhaps I am confusing Laxalt with Watt who defused the movement with his “good neighbor” policy while at Interior. I seem to recall, however, reading something about Laxalt also betraying the movement which is why I hoped you might have something in your files to clarify.

    The benefit of controlling what are now federal lands at a state level would be the ability to manage the forests with an eye eventually to moving much of what today is federal land into private ownership and getting it on the tax rolls.

    For policy reasons, I am a believer in the equal footing doctrine.

    Media accounts are now reporting 50 tons of litter per acre on the forest floor which is making the Wallow fire most difficult to control. It is closing in on 400,000 acres with zero containment.

    I live and ranch in this part of Arizona. My wife’s home town is being evacuated. Those responsible for the lack of management do not live in the area. Management needs to be by those connected to the land rather than by judges and NGOs who wouldn’t know a ponderosa pine from a douglas fir.

    We own a ranch in New Mexico, about 90 miles from the fire and border the national forest now burning. We have done considerable thinning,/brush management on the ranch with much more to do. Our neighbor, the national forest, has done nothing.

    At the present rate of 8 miles per day, our New Mexico ranch could likewise go up in flames. I’m the third generation of my family to have lived/ranched in this area and I cannot begin to describe how bitter/cynical I have become toward those who authority with no corresponding responsibility for their decisions.

    When finished, the fire will have essentially destroyed the best part of Arizona’s White Mountains. There was no need for this to have happened.

    With continued federal management, there will be nothing left of what once was the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pine. What a terrible waste of a resource that can never be replaced in my lifetime nor that of my children.


  4. Ed Darrell says:

    Jay, I think you can find the entire PCAO Report and all the working papers at the ERIC Library online site.

    Again, of course, you’ll be looking for issues. I’d be surprised if the phrase “Sagebrush Rebellion” occurs a half-dozen times in the 2,000 or so pages.


  5. Ed Darrell says:

    Jay, see also:

    Geography hidden in plain sight


    Public Lands insanity

    The Sagebrush Rebellion was a strong undercurrent in the work of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, which I staffed, in 1985-1987. The final report of the PCAO might be informative, but you may wish to find a Federal Depository Library and look at the rather massive compilation documents that led up to the report, featuring almost all of the testimony from the Commission’s 15 hearings and a lot of other material, on public lands access and stewardship, especially. That link goes to the Google Books version, which has graphics suggesting the Working Papers books are also available there.

    Again, good luck.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    Blaming Laxalt with some sort of betrayal sounds way too wooish on the conspiracy nut side, to me. Laxalt was always a strong supporter of the idea.

    Unfortunately I loaned my files to my successor on the issue in the Hatch office, on the condition that he get them back to me in order, complete, and soon. I never saw them again.

    But you should be able to find enough stuff around to get up to speed.

    Check the archives of the New York Times, under “Sagebrush Rebellion.” There are several good articles there, though at the time we thought they were shallow and incomplete. I think our judgment then was much more biased than now. You can find stories in more local, western papers — like the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune, but their archives are generally more difficult to get into.

    Have you checked your local library?

    Look for details around the Forest Service’s Roadless Area Review and Evaluation II (RARE II). The federal agencies were supposed to evaluate unroaded lands over 5000 contiguous acres for possible inclusion in new components of the National Wilderness System. The RARE process in the Forest Service was challenged in court, and as a consequence, it was done over. In the do-over, it became clear that there was a lot of political emotion in the issue that simply had not been expected. There was a conference on RARE II featuring stakeholders and a lot of state and federal agency officials, at the University of Montana in Missoula, in 1978 if I recall correctly. It has a lot of good background on the issues.

    The RARE II materials often get catalogued without any reference to “sagebrush rebellion,” so it helps to understand the issues going in.

    A good understanding of history helps a lot. History blindsided everybody at almost every turn. For example, I well remember a meeting in northern Utah where the Wellsville, Utah, city officials announced they would favor wilderness designation of the Wellsville Mountains; but within a couple of hours they backtracked. In the early 20th century the mountains had burned, leaving the city with no source of drinking water for several years. The city had purchased the land they could, and leased a lot more, and had done a lot of expensive work to protect the watershed. The general guidelines for wilderness areas was that they must remain unroaded and untrammeled by humans — including a clause that fires might not be fought. That was more than the city council could take.

    In 1984 the Wellsville Mountains were added to the National Wilderness system (20,000 acres or so), but that law also allows fire fighting specifically to protect the watershed for the city.

    On several other occasions, there was hay to be made with the reminder that in 1932 President Hoover offered to turn over all the public lands held by the Interior Department to the states — but the states refused. In a fit of unintentional irony, western states usually complained that the BLM lands were “overgrazed” and “worthless.” Of course, those are the same states today who complain that BLM protects those lands too much from overgrazing.

    My post, above, complains that this history is not collected, and for the most part, it still is not.

    What possible benefit could Arizonans get from taking control of the lands burned in those fires you name? If you have a few minutes, please describe what the issues are in Arizona, now.


  7. Jay says:

    I’m very interested in seeing the movement revived. The Wallow fire in Arizona on the heels of the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski fire may provide impetus along with HR 1996.

    How much file information do you have and what can you tell me about Laxalt’s betrayal of the movement just as it was gaining traction?


  8. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s funny. What was I thinking in 2007 when I wrote that? Of course Laxalt’s alive.

    Not funny: Four years the post is there, and no one else has commented on it. No one else noticed the error?

    What new can you tell us about the Sagebrush Rebellion?


  9. Milly says:

    I see this was a post from 2007. This is 2011 and Paul Laxalt is STILL alive and well!
    Just helping you “strive for accuracy”.


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