I remember the Sagebrush Rebellion clearly, as I am one of the Deseret News reporters who covered it most extensively when it happened.
For example, I was there on July 4, 1980, when 250 Rebels bulldozed a route into what they thought was a wilderness study area near Moab, trying to render it unsuitable for wilderness designation.The ostensible reason for a recent retrospective on the Sagebrush Rebellion is its 10th anniversary. Actually, I've found 11-year-old clippings in our paper about resistance to the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act, the basic thrust of the Rebellion.
As this column reported in May 1979, San Juan County Commissioner Cal Black was quoted in a Bureau of Land Management report as saying something to the effect that, "We're going to start a revolution. We're going to get back our lands. We're going to sabotage your vehicles. You had better start going out in twos and threes because we're going to take care of you BLMers."
Black told me at the time that the report wasn't exactly right. "I was saying that that's what I was hearing people saying," he said.
He insisted he would never advocate violence himself.
Still, it proves ruthless people were willing to threaten federal employees who were simply trying to carry out the dictates of Congress.
As a retrospective says, the Sagebrush Rebellion was intended to "wrest control of federal lands from unsympathetic bureaucrats and return them to state or private control."
The land could not be "returned" to the state government or private control because it has always been federal property. It was booty seized by the national government in the War with Mexico, 1846-47; paid for in the blood of thousands of our citizens, none of whom lived in Utah when the war started; ransomed also in a settlement with Mexico amounting to $3 million in taxes.
Huge swaths of land were given away to Utah, to railroads, to homesteaders.
Then, long after the frontier closed, Americans became aware of the value of our remaining land birthright. Congress passed environmental legislation.
Such laws as FLPMA reflect the legitimate interest of all Americans in the wise management of our land. I pay taxes; it belongs to me, too, as much as to the most hard-bitten Sagebrush Rebel in Blanding.
Let's discuss some mistaken impressions.
- "A rancher may face economic disaster if he loses his grazing permits to a newly designated wilderness area."
The truth is, the Wilderness Act of Sept. 3, 1964, states, "the grazing of livestock (where established prior to designation of wilderness) shall be permitted to continue subject to such reasonable regulations as are deemed necessary by the Secretary of Agriculture."
In 1976, the same provisions were applied to BLM land.
Range cattle couldn't even be phased out from Capitol Reef National Park. The political pressure was so great that eventually ranchers were allowed to stay or sell their rights if they wished.
- "On paper, the federal government cannot limit the state's access to its own lands. But in practice, the Department of Interior has instituted regulations that make access virtually impossible except by helicopter."
In 1979, the Cotter Corp. wanted to drill on state school land for which it had a mineral lease, located within a potential BLM wilderness study area near Hanksville. Cotter started bulldozing a road across the federal land.
The BLM sued Cotter in an effort to halt the road-building - and the BLM lost.
According to the ruling by the U.S. District Court's then-Chief Judge Aldon J. Anderson, land ownership brings along with it a right of reasonable access. If the economically reasonable way to reach the state tract is by bulldozing across a federal wilderness area, there's nothing the BLM can do except force the operator to go by the least-harmful route - assuming that the least-harmful route is economically feasible.
The Sagebrush Rebellion was founded on the same kinds of selfish interests as the last true rebellion, the Civil War. In both conflicts, the Rebels claimed ownership of something not theirs by natural right.
In the Civil War, it was ownership of human beings. In the Sagebrush Rebellion, it was private ownership or control of public land.
Those who believe in the rule of law and our representative democracy, where Congress regulates on our behalf, must respect the Wilderness Act. And it says:
". . . it is hereby declared to be the policy of the Congress to secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness."
The national interest guarantees that where it's most sensitive and valuable, our land will be protected from the grasp of exploiters.