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Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics.

The Sagebrush Rebellion was "a temper tantrum over public lands thrown by a handful of Nevada cowboys," according to Ron Arnold of the Wise Use Movement. There is great truth in this quote. The rebellion was initiated by a 1979 law passed by the Nevada legislature, largely at the behest of aggravated Nevada stockmen who were laying claim to federal public-domain lands in the state. That claim fit a pattern of demands by Nevada stockmen dating back at least to the 1940s. However, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming also passed Sagebrush acts similar to the Nevada act; an Alaska "Tundra Rebellion" initiative passed by a 72.5 percent majority; the Washington legislature passed a Sagebrush bill that was nullified by the general-election defeat of a companion constitutional amendment; Hawaii and South Dakota passed hortatory Sagebrush resolutions; and Sagebrush measures were defeated in the legislature or vetoed in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and South Dakota. Clearly, the Sagebrush Rebellion was pandemic west of the 100th meridian during 1979-1980.

Gregg Cawley has been the principal student of the Sagebrush Rebellion since writing his dissertation on the movement under the direction of Phil Foss at Colorado State University. Foss' Politics and Grass (1960) detailed the ways western stockmen attempted to capture the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which manages 176,000,000 acres in the West, most of which is arid rangeland in the intermountain region. Cawley's study represents a complimentary bookend to Foss' influential work, because Cawley describes the reaction of western stockmen to the definitive end of the capture era in BLM and Forest Service management during the "environmental decade" of the 1970s.

Most of the book is historical in approach, focusing on policy issues and broad trends in policy systems. Chapters 2-4 cover the lead-up to the Sagebrush Rebellion, with two chapters devoted to changes in federal land policy during the 1970s. During the seventies, argues Cawley, federal land management moved increasingly toward policy positions favored by environmentalists and preservationists. Thus, traditional land users--the cowboys; the mining, oil, and gas industries; and local communities hemmed in by public lands---plus some newer users--notably, off-road vehicle drivers--felt increasingly aggravated by "bureaucratic" regulations and the influence of environmental "elitists." There were other issues fanning the flames of western conservatives' aggravation with environmentalism, such as concern over President Jimmy Carter's beginning of the end of heavily subsidized federal water projects.

Cawley, however, focuses on the public-lands conservatives as the constituency behind the spate of Sagebrush Rebellion initiatives during 1979-1980. Chapters 6-7 bring the book to its conclusion by describing the denouement of the rebellion after President Ronald Reagan adopted a "good neighbor" policy. His administration sought to change many of the environmental policies opposed by traditional public-lands users, and then embarked on a land-sales "privatization" program that completely muddled the Sagebrushers' interests. Eventually, the administration settled into relative moderation after the resignations under fire of Reagan's secretary of the interior, James Watt, and his agent, Anne Gorsuch Burford, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

There is very little wrong with Cawley's book (aside from a bad misquote at page 89 from an anthology chapter of mine on MX-missile basing). Certainly, any reviewer can find nits to pick. I believe that Cawley does not present sufficient and properly organized detail on the most notable historical precursor of the Sagebrush Rebellion: During the 1940s, in what Bernard DeVoto called the "Great Land Grab," Nevada stockmen and their legislative delegates, who opposed federal efforts to decrease overgrazing of the federal range and to raise the low fees ranchers paid for their licenses, led a campaign to wrest control over public lands. This battle led to the defunding and euthanasia of the Grazing Service, BLM's predecessor. The "land-grab" legislation only faded away as Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration took office in 1953. This most important episode is accorded only a paragraph in the wrong chapter, plus scattered allusions elsewhere in the book, so that readers cannot as clearly see the Sagebrush Rebellion as part of the continuity of public-lands history.

At the other end of the book, Cawley neglects to explain why the Sagebrush rebels could never support the "privatization" land sales advocated by the free-market wing of the Reagan administration: The value of below-market-rate federal grazing licenses is capitalized into the price of a licensee's ranch properties; consequently, when they added significantly lower ranch values to even lower costs to purchase federal rangeland, plus significantly increased property taxes, privatization was prohibitively irrational for even well-off ranchers. This is why these rangelands have stayed in public ownership all these decades, and why the Sagebrush rebels insisted on state takeover of federal lands.

On the whole, though, Cawley's argument about the rebellion is right on target. At the heart of the rebellion were the rural traditionalists who had seen their use of federal lands gradually regulated from the mythic frontier days before the establishment of the Forest Service and BLM. They then saw the compromise measure, the Multiple Use Sustained Yield Act of 1960, replaced by the wilderness-review wars of the 1970s, when the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society demanded that all 56,000,000 acres of national forest roadless areas be designated official wilderness. Following that, the traditional group saw the preservationists east their eyes on BLM's roadless areas after the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 mandated a BLM wilderness review. So, the cowboys reverted to form and stormed the legislative hearing rooms demanding a Great Land Grab II. As a preservationist and member of the Sierra Club and Wilderness Society, I am one of those who regarded the Sagebrush Rebellion as anathema. Cawley's book is much more objective and sympathetic toward the movement, and that is appropriate.

Indeed, the only real complaint I have about this book is that I wanted more. There is really only one chapter devoted to the rebellion itself, although Chapter 6 contains a most interesting and relevant explication of the ideological split between the traditionalist conservatives and the free-market "libertarians" in the Reagan constituency and of the relevance of that split for understanding the dissipation of the Sagebrush movement. The rebellion is, thus, treated as an epiphenomenon, that is, events that mostly symbolized the aggravation of traditional public-lands users.

Apparently, the Sagebrush movement was never institutionalized into an ongoing interest group. The representative of the movement, the League for the Advancement of States' Equal Rights (LASER), apparently met at only a single conference in 1980. But, who exactly were these people? I would have liked to see some systematic analysis of the backgrounds, affiliations, and so forth of the people who were members of LASER or who represented other groups at LASER's meetings. Moreover, as the book has only 168 pages of text, it had space for a separate chapter systematically detailing the course of the Sagebrush bills or referendums in each of the western states. These additions would have made Cawley's book the definitive work on the Sagebrush Rebellion.

In any case, this book should be of great interest to students of U.S. federalism. Cawley presents a fine case study of the background and denouement of this flashfire in which a region of fifteen states declared war on the property clause of the U.S. Constitution. The public-lands scholarly community, of course, is well aware of the significance of the Sagebrush Rebellion and, given Cawley's previous articles on the topic, has eagerly awaited this book. For us, Federal Lands, Western Anger is a must-buy addition to our bookshelves.

Paul J. Culhane Northern Illinois University
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Author:Culhane, Paul J.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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