Politics & Policy

Bundy Ranch Standoff Could Spark New Sagebrush Rebellion

Westerners are tired of having Uncle Sam for a landlord.

For casual news watchers, reports that a rancher in Clark County, Nev., is at odds with federal land bureaucrats, that scores of federal lawyers are litigating against him, and that SWAT-garbed and heavily armed federal law-enforcement officers have got his place surrounded was shocking news.

But westerners — especially rural westerners who make a living on the federal lands that predominate beyond the hundredth meridian, by logging, mining, ranching, camping, or developing energy resources — were not surprised by the rancher uprising after the Bureau of Land Management seized hundreds of heads of cattle from rancher Cliven Bundy.


Thanks in part to negotiations by a local sheriff, the overreaction by federal officials, with snipers at the ready, has so far stopped short of the deadly escalations under other administrations, Republican and Democrat, at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas. But Washington officials need to remember what happened years ago in those faraway places, reflect on the lessons learned there, and remonstrate in favor of restraint. That’s not likely because the Obama administration possesses a mindset unlike that of any other administration in history.


In April 2009, the Obama Department of Homeland Security (DHS) published Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, which targeted unnamed individuals and groups because of their views on illegal immigration; centralizing power in Washington, D.C., rather than in state and local governments; restricting the right to keep and bear arms; abortion; and the loss of American sovereignty. 

The report, issued under then–DHS secretary Janet Napolitano, asserted that people espousing these views are right-wing extremists and are or could become members of right-wing terrorist groups and that both pose a threat to national security. Of special concern were military veterans returning from service in Iraq and Afghanistan, given their combat skills and experience. Napolitano sent the report to sheriffs and police departments across the country with instructions that they report any sightings to the DHS.  

The Obama administration was not unique, however, in its eager, early, and extended embrace of policies anathema to the American West. On that score it followed the examples of the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, both of whom heeded the demands of those whom President Reagan called “environmental extremists” or “modern-day Luddites.” 

In the late 1970s, Carter’s “War on the West” spawned the Sagebrush Rebellion, which Governor Reagan welcomed by saying, “I am a Sagebrush rebel.” Reagan, as governor of California, a vast public-lands state (nearly half is federally owned), knew what most Americans do not: that the federal government owns a third of the country. Most of that land is in the eleven western states and Alaska. In rural western counties, the federal government owns upward of 60, 70, 80, and even 90 percent of the land. 

Not all of those lands are parks, which are preserved for public recreation, or wilderness areas, where motorized activity is barred and “where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Much of it is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service and is, by law, open to “multiple use” activities, including cattle grazing, recreation, and energy and mineral development.

President Reagan, an environmentalist himself, watched the movement change during his lifetime. It began with the desire to conserve some federal land to meet mankind’s need for food, fiber, and water and to preserve other federal land as a source of religious, emotional, and psychological revitalization. By the time Carter took office, however, environmental zealots had come to regard humans as “a cancer on the planet.” When Reagan declared “people are part of the ecology,” dedicated himself to using federal lands to meet America’s energy, economic, and foreign policy needs, and determined to quell the Sagebrush Rebellion by being a “good neighbor,” environmental groups, as one, endorsed Carter and excoriated Reagan.

Obama picked up where Carter, and later Clinton, left off in implementing the radical agenda of environmental groups. Many environmentalists view all federal lands as their private playground, off limits to productive activity. On their own behalf, these groups use the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) — which has been called “the pit bull of environmental laws” — and endless rule-making over federal land planning to kill or prevent anybody from making a living on federal land. At the same time, quick settlements of lawsuits filed by these groups fund further litigation. Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt recently sued the Fish and Wildlife Service for its “sue and settle” tactics on the ESA.

Meanwhile, President Obama and his officials have launched their own “war on the west.” After “cap and trade” failed in the Senate, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) initiated its administrative “war on coal,” with devastating implications for coal-producing western states. Former secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, ignoring that hydraulic fracturing had been regulated by the states for sixty years, proposed regulations that will add $345 million in annual costs to western energy development, not to mention the endless litigation that follows issuance of any federal permit.

Meanwhile, though energy development is booming on state and private lands across the country, leasing of and permitting on the vast federal estate run by Salazar’s successor Sally Jewell is a bust. Jewell travels the west threatening local officials that Obama will issue the type of national-monument designations that got Clinton hung in effigy in rural Utah. Finally, the EPA, which last December put a million acres of Wyoming land, including the town of Riverton, into an Indian reservation, released new “wetland” rules, the enforcement of which against a Wyoming man drew national headlines.

Little wonder that there is talk of another Sagebrush Rebellion, that Utah has passed enabling legislation to secure title to federal lands it needs for its citizens, an effort in which other states have joined to one degree or another, and that legislation proposed by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R., Utah) to sell 3.3 million acres of federal land deemed by the Clinton administration as “suitable for disposal” was reported out of committee.

Criticism of the federal government for its vast land holdings and its apparent inability to manage what it owns is not limited to westerners. Weeks ago, during oral arguments in a Wyoming case, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia told the government lawyer, “It’s incredible that there’s no record in the Interior Department or anywhere else of what land the United States own. You claim you own these thousands of acres, and you say we’ve not kept track of it. We just know where it’s going to go, but we don’t know what we own.”

Westerners know they could do better.

— William Perry Pendley, a lawyer, is president of Mountain States Legal Foundation and author of Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today.


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