The Sagebrush Rebellion, Part I



I’m re-sharing this series in loving tribute to Patriot Lavoy Finicum who was murdered by our own government in cold blood in Harney Co., Oregon recently.  For those of you who do not understand the issues at stake in this and other “incidents” in the West with the Federal government for the last couple of decades, this series is for you.
Here’s a little background on the whole Federal lands issue in the Western states to get us started.  At statehood, Idaho and other Western states were promised that the federal government, once statehood had been achieved, would dispose of its land holdings in our states.
Idaho’s road to statehood was delayed by a lack of citizenry, so Idaho did not achieve statehood until 1890 when it entered the Union as the 43rd state.  Prior to statehood, the territory of Idaho was allocated approximately 3.7 million acres of land, through the Enabling Act, which stipulated this land held by the Federal government would be turned over to the state of  Idaho shortly after statehood was achieved.
The federal government promised all new states that it would “extinguish title” (i.e. transfer away title) to all public lands.  For all states EAST of Colorado (and for Hawaii), it honored this promise.  This never happened in the Western states.  The map below shows the enormous disparity in federally-held lands (indicated in red) throughout our country.
In 1828, the then “western states” (Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida) repeatedly complained to congress that the Enabling Acts for those states  (which has the same language as OUR Enabling Act requiring the federal government to “extinguish title” to their public lands) had not been honored.  Their persistence paid off:  they won their lands back.
For the rest of the western states, anger has simmered for a very long time.  The first Sagebrush Rebellion erupted in the 1890’s.  The genesis of the dispute is well-documented.  Throughout most of America’s life, as the “East” moved steadily west, the nation’s attitude toward its timbered and resource-rich environment was simplistic and lethal.  Clinging to the belief that the land existed for exploitation and no other reason, the mythology that the rich bounty of the West had been purposely set aside by God  for the use of industry back east .  Anger erupted at the fact that Westerners were denied the same access to abundance and equality that had been accorded the eastern states who had the right to harvest and profit from the resources in their states.
It enraged the Western states, for example, that they had to depend on far-away federal agents who deliberately(and often with malice) impeded their access to grazing permits, water rights, timber cutting permits.  They hamstrung prospecting.  And , to make matters even more flammable, these “agents” were usually eastern businessmen whose primary goal was personal gain.  Resistance by Westerners began to form.
Of all the “insurgent” groups in the West, the most active was the small cattlemen who fought for years against what they insistently called an “absentee landlord system” that made them “tenants of the federal government.”  In hundreds of local and regional meetings, especially in the early 1900s, they put as much pressure as they could on the government, arguing that “Uncle Sam has been paid a thousandfold already for the land by the blood and bones” of cattlemen and others.  They created such a condition of anarchy by contesting federal laws whenever they could that they forced rangers to arm themselves and maintain the law at gunpoint.  What galled Westerners above all else was the belief that the kinds of restrictions placed on them had never been placed on the East.
For three days in June, 1907, federal officers sent to Denver by Roosevelt faced down insurgents from all over the West.  When it was over, the West knew the worst:  federal policies were legal, they were immutable, and they would be enforced.  In three days, the president suffocated the insurgent movement, essentially forever, and ended a decade of disorder in its tracks.  The message was clear: the intent of powerful political and economic interests on the East Coast of the United States would continue:  the west’s tremendous mineral and other resources were to be controlled by them. The insurgents never recovered, and the cry of “states’ rights” died on their lips.  The first Sagebrush Rebellion  was done.
Enter 1979, and President Jimmy Carter’s “War on the West” spawned the second Sagebrush Rebellion.  It was as if an old script had been found, dusted off, and transported into the present for another reading.  On one side, once again, was the West, and on the other the federal government.  In the middle were the same old questions about land, rights, and power.  In 1979, Westerners spoke of an excess of federal sovereignty in their midst, and a hundred years earlier they said the same thing.  In 1979, they warred with the government to correct the problem and in the 1890s they did the same thing.  Ten decades passed between the two rebellions and nothing changed.
At this point, Federal holdings included nearly a third of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico and Washington; roughly half of Arizona, California, Oregon and Wyoming; and two-thirds or more of Alaska, Idaho, Nevada and Utah.  By comparison, the three non-Western states with the MOST federal land are New Hampshire at 14%, Florida at 13%, and Michigan at 10%.

(Stay tuned for the next installment! . . )


"Peace is that brief glorious moment in history when everybody stands around reloading" ~ Thomas Jefferson