The sagebrush rebels attempted to influence environmental policy in the American West during the 1970s and 1980s, surviving into the 21st century in public lands states (generally, the 13 western states where federal land holdings include 30% to more than 80% of a state's area), and surviving in organized groups pressuring public lands policy makers, especially for grazing of sheep and cattle on public lands, and for mineral extraction policies.
An extension of the older controversy of state vs. federal powers, Sagebrush Rebels wanted the federal government to give more control of federally owned Western lands to state and local authorities. This was meant to increase the growth of Western economies. Republican Ronald Reagan declared himself a sagebrush rebel in an August 1980 campaign speech in Salt Lake City, telling the crowd, "I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion. Count me in as a rebel." Reagan was faced with opposition with conservation organizations. This struggle persists today after changing form, with the "wise use movement" in 1988. George H. W. Bush helped work around restrictive environmental laws to help mining, ranching, and real estate developing industries that created jobs in the states.
The term "Sagebrush Rebellion" was coined during fights over designation of National Wilderness lands, especially in Western states, and especially after the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) conducted required surveys of plots of public lands of at least 5,000 acres (20 km²) that were unroaded, after 1972, for potential designation as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. This process was known as the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation (RARE, or later, RARE I). The process developed significant opposition by environmental groups and by public lands users, and was challenged in federal court. Results of RARE I were tabled by the courts for lack of uniform criteria for evaluation of lands and other procedural problems, and a second review started in 1977, known as RARE II, involving more than 60 million acres (240,000 km²) of wildland under federal jurisdiction. RARE II was completed in 1979. Controversy, and lack of support from the Reagan administration starting in 1981, largely sidelined a formal, national wilderness assessment. Congress has designated several wilderness areas since 1981, sometimes using data acquired through the RARE processes.
The National Wilderness Preservation System grew out of recommendations of a Kennedy-administration Presidential Commission, the Outdoor Recreational Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) chaired by Laurence S. Rockefeller, whose 1962 report suggested legislation to protect recreational resources in a "national system of wild and scenic rivers", a national wilderness system, a national trails system, the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, and recreation areas administered by then-existing public lands agencies beyond National Parks and National Monuments (both of which are administered in the Department of the Interior by the National Parks Administration).
Much of the wildland was sagebrush, which some wanted to use for grazing, off-road vehicle use, and other development instead of wilderness conservation. These "rebels" urged that, instead of designating more federal wilderness protection, some or much of the land be granted to states or private parties. They took on the phrase "Sagebrush Rebellion" to describe their opposition to federal management of these lands.
Complaints about federal management of public lands constantly roil relations between public lands users—ranchers, miners, researchers, off-road vehicle (ORV) enthusiasts, hikers, campers and conservation advocates—and the agencies. Ranchers complain that grazing fees are too high—despite the rock-bottom, taxpayer-subsidized, below-market fees—they also complaint that grazing regulations are too onerous—despite environmentalist complaints that the opposite is true, and that promised improvements to grazing on federal lands does not occur. Miners complain of restricted access to claims, or to lands to prospect. Researchers complain of the difficulty of getting research permits, only to encounter other obstacles in research, including uncooperative permit holders and, especially in archaeology, vandalized sites with key information destroyed. ORV users want free access, hikers and campers and conservationists complain grazing is not regulated enough, some mineral lease holders abuse other lands, and ORV use destroys the resource. Each of these complaints has a long history.
Federal holding of public lands was originally an accident of history. Among the first pieces of legislation passed under the U.S. Constitution was the Northwest Ordinance, which was designed to dispose of lands the federal government held after state claims were conceded, in the Northwest Territories (now Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana).
In order to encourage settlement of western lands, Congress passed the Morrell Act in 1862, granting parcels in 40-acre (160,000 m2) increments to homesteaders who could maintain a living on land for a period of time. Congress also made huge land grants to various railroads working to complete a transcontinental rail system. Much of these latter grants intentionally included mineral- and timber-rich lands, so that the railroads could get financing to build. Again, the hypothesis was that the railroads would sell off the land to get money.
Ultimately, however, it turned out that much land west of the Missouri River was too wild for homesteading, because of mountainous terrain or lack of available water. By the early 20th century, the federal government held significant portions of most western states that had simply not been claimed for any use. Conservationists prevailed on President Theodore Roosevelt to set aside lands for forest preservation, and for special scientific or natural history interest. Much land still remained unclaimed, even after such reserves were initially set up. The Department of the Interior held millions of acres in the western states (with Arizona and New Mexico joining the union by 1913). President Hoover proposed to deed these lands to the states in 1932, but the states complained that the lands had been overgrazed and would in other ways impose a burden on cash-strapped state budgets. The Bureau of Land Management was created to manage much of that land.Congressional support for the Sagebrush Rebellion
Various bills to transfer federal public lands to western states had been proposed after 1932, all failing to garner much attention, let alone action. Among key objections to such transfers were the increasing value to the federal treasury of mineral lease receipts, and complaints that the "crown jewels" of the national lands holdings, the National Parks, could not be managed adequately or fairly by individual states. Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks were considered to be national treasures, and few legislators would concur with turning them over to the states.
The spark that turned these complaints into a "rebellion" was the enactment in 1976 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which sought to establish a system of land management by the BLM, recognizing that most of the BLM holdings would not be turned into private hands. While FLPMA required BLM to plan land use accommodating all users, specifically naming ranching, grazing, and mining, it also introduced formal processes to consider preservation of the land from ranching, grazing and mining. Western land users regarded the act as a bureaucratic power grab at best, or the imposition of a totalitarian socialist regime at the radical worst.
Newly elected Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, joined in land transfer legislation in 1977, after loud complaints from ranchers and oilmen from Utah, coupled with strong support from several Utah county governments. By late 1979 Hatch was the one legislator most interested in land transfers. He sought to introduce a transfer bill that would get hearings and potential action. Upon advice of members of the Utah Wilderness Commission, appointed by Utah Governor Scott Matheson, Hatch agreed to leave National Parks and National Monuments in federal hands, and he drafted a bill that would allow states to apply for control over selected parcels. With 16 cosponsors, he introduced the bill in 1980, and again in 1981. Partly because Hatch's bill dealt with major objections to previous bills, news outlets for the first time covered the bill as if it had a serious chance of passing. This provided a huge morale boost to long-aggrieved public lands users other than conservationists, and started a two-year newspaper, radio and television fight for the legislation.
Ultimately Hatch's bill got little more than press attention. The election of Ronald Reagan as president put a friend to the Sagebrush Rebels in the White House. Reagan appointees slowed down or closed down wilderness designation legislation, and by Reagan's second term, the Sagebrush Rebellion was back to simmering on the back burner of federal land management agencies.