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Wilderness Preservation and the Sagebrush Rebellions.

By William L. Graf. Savage, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1990. Pp. xviii, 329. $38.50.

Geographer William Graf's Wilderness Preservation and the Sagebrush Rebellions spans the century from 1880 to the 1980s in its chronicle of western revolts against increasingly restrictive federal regulation of the use of the area's public domain. The futility of the sagebrush rebellions against federal control becomes clear, as public policy moves from surveying and rationalizing use of western lands of conservation to wilderness preservation. Indeed, the term rebellion to denote the generally unorganized and ineffective periodic efforts to reverse federal control over western resources seems a bit strong to describe what Graf's narrative reveals. He considers four major regional reactions to federal land policy: the first involves reaction to federal irrigation surveys of the intermountain region, in the late 1880s; the second, hostility to federal forest preservation plans from the late 1980s to about 1910; the third, dispute over grazing regulations on public lands from the mid-1920s to the mid-1930s; and the fourth, concern over wilderness preserves that began in the late 1970s.

Graf combines political and social history with an appreciation of the physical attributes of this region, which stretches from the western prairies to eastern Washington and Oregon and the California border and centers on Colorado, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, but involves Montana and Wyoming as well. Upon acquisition of these lands, the federal government faced the question of whether and how to distribute them; Graf's text focuses on how the specific arid and often unknown conditions of the sagebrush region complicated the answers to the question. He illuminates how political maneuvering and orchestration of public opinion played important roles in the outcomes of the various debates. Thus, though Graf's expertise as a geographer influences the book, its main emphasis seems more political than scientifically analytical, with the main scientific contributions coming through his grasp of the history of science and the (mis)understanding that political decision-makers and their advisors likely had of the topography, climate, geology, soil, and geography of the region. For example, the first rebellion resulted from attempts to survey the west for possible irrigation sites, with lands being withheld from settlement until the survey was completed and plans developed for rational water collection, preservation, and allocation. The strongest advocate for the survey, John Wesley Powell, had been a college professor, then became the director of the U.S. Geological Survey; in that position he earned both admiration and enmity, as he lobbied for the creation of irrigation survey. The limited understanding of how settlement affected rainfall patterns complicated the issue, with the advocates of rapid development insisting that ". . . rain followed the plow."

Ironically, but in a pattern to be repeated in future rebellions, Powell joined forces with Bill Stewart, senator from Nevada, to push the irrigations survey through Washington's political maze. Stewart represented the forces for economic development in the west, but thought that a federally financed survey would encouraged investment in the region. Only after the project was funded did it become clear that the survey was to proceed scientifically and slowly, with disbursement of affected public lands held in abeyance in the meantime. Public awareness of the issues was heightened by journalists and other writers who were dedicated to preservation of wilderness areas, with John Muir among the first to reach a wide audience. In the first rebellion, he influenced many easterners with his advocacy of preservation. in future conflicts between developers and conservationists, writers and artists would prove important of public opinion in heavily populated urban areas of the east, opinion that carried substantial weight in national political decisions.

Indeed, the east vs. west theme is replayed in succeeding conflicts over the public lands. Westerners argued that they should be allowed to develop local agricultural, mining, forest, and grazing resources. Advocates of slower, planned resource use of wilderness preservation, controlled from Washington, often where easterners, often from wealthy families, often with Ivy League degrees, and often avid recreational users of wilderness resources. Conflicts were not limited to the east-west theme, however. States rights advocates vied with advocates of centralized, federal control. Speculators (and their cronies, monopolies and big business) were arrayed against the advocates of the "little man," who could appear on either side of the rebellion, but the anti-developers seemed to claim him most successfully. Perhaps most fascinating, conflicts among federal agencies persisted over much of the century. The Departments of Agriculture and Interior feuded over which could claim administration of various western lands programs; Interior's reputation had been sullied by various land sales scandals, providing Agriculture access to new forestry programs. The use of forests and other public domain lands for grazing provided legitimacy for Agriculture's oversight. In later years, both forestry and parks services, after conflicting with each other, would battle jointly with wilderness preservation advocates; the services tended to support controlled and sustainable access to the resources, while wilderness advocates argued in favor of unaltered landscapes accessible only to the hardy backpacker on foot.

Graf's history depends upon extensive secondary documents, as well as primary scientific studies that accompanied the policy battles. His historical, political, and economic references often are fairly old, so he may miss some of the revision of the economic history that has occurred in the past two decades. However, his main story is not about economics, except as it motivated the actors, and his detailed book may be more attractive to economists because he does not hazard much economic analysis. Economists will be eager to recast his intriguing history in economic terms. Just how efficient were subsidies for irrigation projects? How should grazing fees have been set? Does any economic justification exist for preserving inaccessible wildness areas that cover scarce minerals? Graf's history concerns more who made policy decisions and how the benefits were distributed than with their effect on efficiency. Public choice economists should find it a rich source of case studies. Graf's careful compilation of events affecting policy about a commonly held good also provides fertile material for a Coasian analysis of externalities and the role of property rights in efficient allocation. Ann Harper-Fender Gettysburg College
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Author:Harper-Fender, Ann
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1992
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