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What Is the Sagebrush Rebellion?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated: May 17, 2024

The Sagebrush Rebellion was an American political movement in the 1970s and early 1980s that sought to strip the federal, or national, government of land control powers in the western part of the country. Historically the federal government has owned most of the land in the westernmost states, in large part because these states were in most cases merely territories until the mid-19th century. People have felt that local control of these lands is better than national oversight for a long time, but the rebellion didn’t become an organized entity until President Gerald R. Ford signed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) in 1976. That act formalized the government’s role in land protected as national parks and forests, and seemed to make local control all but impossible. It also ended a long-standing practice of “earned” control by people or entities who managed and cared for the land. The rebellion involved a number of important and well-respected leaders, and basically encouraged supporters to defy the government and to refuse to acknowledge its authority. The controversy didn’t settle until President Ronald Reagan took intentional steps to hear the rebellion’s arguments and negotiated a resolution in the mid-1980s.

Ramifications of the Act

The land west of the Rocky Mountains in the United States — land that includes the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Arizona, and California — was, in the early days of the nation, basically uncharted and unclaimed. For a long time, the practice of “homesteading” allowed families and individuals to claim land and become owners through work and cultivation. This practice ended with the passage of the FLPMA which, among other tings, stated that the majority of land formally or informally controlled by the National Forest Service (NFS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) would never be release to either state or private control.

The bill was designed under the assumption that the economic benefits would prove too tempting to local authorities, and environmental concerns would be ignored in favor of fast cash. Although provisions were made to continue using resources for mining, logging, grazing and ranching, the legislation also included preservation measures and heavily restricted these activities.

Environmental Regulations

Environmental regulations in the act protecting endangered species reduced available land and resources. From 1977 to 1980, President Jimmy Carter set aside 37.8 million acres of federal land, previously available for commercial use, for national parks and protected reserves. These reserves also had an impact on the surrounding lands, such as interrupting irrigation and making previously productive farmland unusable.

From one perspective, the dedication of this land to federal control was a good thing: it protected it and preserved it for the enjoyment of everyone. For many of those who lived on the land and depended on it for their livelihoods, however, the law wasn’t always seen quite so favorably. A group of powerful local leaders led an uprising, calling themselves the “Sagebrush Rebellion” in reference to the scrub-like sagebrush plants that grow prolifically in most of the impacted land.

Resistance to Government Control

The westerners at the core of the movement felt that they were merely caretakers for the federal government and fought for greater control of local lands. Many felt that federal bureaucrats didn’t understand local issues and that local authorities would be better at managing resources and growing the economy. Supporters of the rebellion felt that their land was being stolen from them and resented the further loss of control. Some felt that Carter, who failed win a single one of the 12 continental western states during the presidential election, was punishing the entire region. Grassroots support sprung up across the west with the goal of either bringing federal land under state management or allowing purchase by the private sector.

Resistance to governmental control of land was nothing new in the western states, and use of lands controlled by the NFS and BLM is heavily restricted. In cases where land use is approved, expensive licensing is often required, and licensees must adhere to regulations and specific guidelines that many people find needlessly restrictive. Initial support for the Sagebrush Rebellion grew from resistance to grazing fees charged to ranchers, but miners and loggers also were affected.

Calming the Movement

Until Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981, the rebellion continued to resist federal authority. Reagan eased tensions by appointing James Watt, a Sagebrush Rebellion leader, to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior. Although resistance to federal authority in land matters was at its peak during the late 1970s, this resentment did not fully heal and continued into the 21st century.

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Discussion Comments
By anon273914 — On Jun 09, 2012

Where do I find more information online as to how this abuse by the federal government has affected states' rights?

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