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The recent controversy over rancher Cliven Bundy of Bunkerville led to a lot of references to an earlier fight between ranchers and the federal government … the Sagebrush Rebellion. We thought it might be useful to look back and remind you of what that was all about.
Yes, westerners long had objected to the amount of land the federal government controlled. But the issue also involved HOW the feds controlled it and what they did with it. Ranchers had objected to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, which changed how they could use federal land. They didn’t like the creation of the Bureau of Land Management in 1946 to administer those lands. And they weren’t happy about the large areas set aside as wilderness in the 1960s and early 1970s, or when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 exerted and expanded federal control.
After that, the BLM suggested setting aside millions of acres of federal land in Nevada as wilderness. In 1979, the Nevada legislature responded. Dean Rhoads was a longtime legislator who also was an Elko County rancher. Rhoads introduced a bill demanding that about fifty million acres of federal land be given to the states to control. Four other states passed similar laws.
You might not be surprised to know that reactions were mixed, even within the states in question. Party lines weren’t at issue. The Sagebrush Rebels, as they were known, got support from Republican U.S. senator Paul Laxalt and Democratic congressman Jim Santini. Critics included not just environmental groups, but a well respected Republican, Cliff Young, a former congressman then serving in the state senate.
The Sagebrush Rebellion seemed to gather steam in the 1980 presidential election. During the campaign, Ronald Reagan said, “Count me in as a rebel.” The rebels were optimistic when Reagan won the presidency and appointed as his secretary of the interior James Watt, who made clear that he didn’t have sympathy for the environmental movement that had led to the wilderness designations.
But the Sagebrush Rebels didn’t get quite what they wanted. Watt did scale back wilderness designations. But the Reagan administration did not want to give public lands to the states. If anything, they wanted to sell those lands, much as the federal government had done for generations. That was definitely not what the Sagebrush Rebels wanted.
Nonetheless, the Sagebrush Rebellion died down. Historically, some movements have lost at least part of their momentum when they achieve a degree of success, and the Rebels did have some success. Nor were they likely to elect someone more sympathetic than Reagan.
Since then, rural westerners have continued to criticize the federal government, at times with support from conservatives without such close ties to the land. There also have been challenges to federal authority over public lands. In 1994, Nye County Commissioner Dick Carver used his plow to open a road the federal government had closed. The Jarbidge Shovel Brigade did something similar in Elko County in 2000. Whether those actions were part of the Sagebrush Rebellion could be debated; they certainly reflected unhappiness with the federal government, as did the supporters who gathered around Cliven Bundy. It’s an old debate, and it’s going to continue.