Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion Awakens

In September Char Miller didn’t give much credit to what he called Rob Bishop’s “Sputtering Sagebrush Rebellion“, [KCET's "The Back Forty", 09/21/2011]. Miller suggested that the rebellion might backfire in two ways, first by challenging President Obama to follow Bill Clinton’s lead by either invoking the Antiquities Act to establish yet-another national monument at the end of his term of office, or by helping to rally voters in favor of retaining both the public lands in federal ownership and Obama in the White House come November. But Utah’s Governor Hebert and Utah’s predominantly Republican legislators seem intent on pursuing this “Sagebrush Rebellion” at least as election-year politics, and maybe as a means to gain traction in the upcoming battle over federal education dollars in what we’ve called the “Secure Rural Schools” or “County Payments” debate that will heat up this summer. [Note: Rob Bishop is Chair of the Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands, US House of Representatives.] A little more on the issue:

(From Ogden Standard-Examiner, Showdown Looms over Utah’s Public Lands, [02/27/2012])

There are four bills now in front of the Utah House of Representatives that form the basis of a legal challenge to the federal government’s right to control approximately two-thirds of the land in the state. The bills invoke promises dating back to when Utah gained statehood in 1896.

One resolution, sponsored by Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville, calls for the federal government to turn over control of the land to the state by Dec. 31, 2014. …

To gain statehood, the Utah Enabling Act contained language stipulating that, as federal lands were transferred to the state, where they could then generate tax revenue, 5 percent of the funds would go to a trust fund for education. Most of the land has never left federal hands, and subsequently, the revenue stream has never developed. A number of officials claim that is why Utah ranks near the bottom of per-pupil funding.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says the land debate raises big constitutional issues. He cites notes from the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in which Elbridge Gerry, a delegate from Massachusetts who would become the fifth vice president of the U.S., worried that federal control of land within a state would allow the federal government to force states to give “humble obedience” to the government.

“That concern 225 years ago still remains today. If you give too much land to the federal government, and let them hold it, and let them declare it (tax) exempt, you have a problem,” Lee said. He said Utah students and teachers deserve the revenue the land should be generating. Lee said Utahns also deserve the right to be on equal footing with other states that have few federal land holdings within their borders.

U.S. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, estimated in 2011 the revenue the state could generate by being able to impose a small tax on federal land holdings. He suggested that placing a fair tax on those properties, if they are not returned to the private sector, could provide a financial boon to education. He said even sagebrush property taxed at its lowest rate could potentially generate $116 million a year for the state. …

He said the land-use paradigms at the federal level change about every 40 or 50 years. He said it has been almost 50 years since the last change, and he thinks the Legislature’s efforts could be very timely.

“It is time, it is ripe for that discussion,” Bishop said.

[Rep. Roger Barrus, R-Centerville] said he and other lawmakers are prepared for a drawn-out dispute with the federal government. He expects neighboring states, including Idaho, Montana, Arizona and Nevada, to join the fray as well. He said the federal government has just not kept its promises. He likened the problem to the issue facing early colonists in America who had a feudal landlord in Great Britain.

[Update: March 23] Utah Governor Signs Bill Demanding Federal Lands

Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill Friday that demands the federal government relinquish control of public lands in Utah by 2014, setting the table for a potential legal battle over millions of acres in the state. …

What do They Really Want?
While working up this post I ran into an expose of the late-1970s—early-1980s Sagebrush Rebellion, by Frank J. Popper titled “A Timely End of the Sagebrush Rebellion” (pdf), National Affairs 76, Summer 1984. Popper suggests that in the end the “Rebels” may have won a victory from what seemed to many a loss, in part by opening up the process of slowly selling some of the federal lands. It’s a point to ponder, when trying to figure out today’s Rebels want as they prepare for “a drawn-out dispute with the federal government” for control of lands they probably don’t really want—if they stop to think about it. To Popper:

The Sagebrush Rebellion did not fail—it ended because it achieved many of its goals. The Reagan administration rapidly found clever, politically appealing ways to start to transfer some public lands without having to ask Congress for new legislation. Watt’s Interior Department undertook a “good neighbor policy” that allowed state and local governments to request the department’s “surplus” lands. The initiative was soon broadened to an Asset Management Program whereby all federal agencies could sell their excess land in the West and elsewhere; the eventual sale of 35 million acres–an area the size of Iowa–was expected. Separately, the Forest Service prepared to sell up to 17 million acres. The federal land agencies sped up the transfers to Alaska’s state government and Native Americans authorized by the 1958 Statehood Act, the 1971 Native Claims Settlement Act, and the 1980 National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The BLM experimentally revived homesteading in the Kuskokwim Mountains in central Alaska. Numerous federal-Western state land exchanges were in exploratory stages, and seemed most advanced in Utah. [p. 68]

4 Comments

    • Sometimes I think that we ought to give all the federal lands to them, particularly these big Western states. We also ought to, perchance, let them maintain all their roads, fund their own schools, and why not let them provide for their own defense, health care, social security. What else? After all, if they can do it ALL better, why not let them do so. I used to think that California might be the exception to my little “tongue in cheek” rule. But given their debt load, maybe we ought to let them be free of the Union too.

      I find it “cute” that Utah wants to keep the National Parks as they petition for the rest of the federal public lands to be handed over. I guess they don’t want to kill a goose they believe to lay golden eggs–i.e. tourism dollars that flow to businesses adjacent to some of the seven wonders of the world, which wouldn’t appear quite so wonderful it not “branded” National Parks. And if Utah is to be withdrawn from the Union, maybe the big Hill Air Force Base ought to depart as well. And also the new NSA facility that is under construction. And also the big IRS western processing center. And also the ….

  1. Ah, the ol’ “donor states vs. welfare states” debate. Taking care of roads? I think most of the “largesse imbalance” is due to the highway trust fund. It’s true western states receive $2.00 in funding for every $1.00 in gas tax. However, I’m sure the Donor states would be happy to pay a “toll” for using “our” interstates so they can get their fresh organic produce from California to your dinner table in two days instead of the one week the old Union Pacific “fruit express” used to take. I’m sure you would be happy to pay a little extra for the cost to transport that nifty gadget from Long Beach (port of) to your local Best Buy. Makes you wonder what percentage of the truck loads that roll down I-80 originate in Wyoming and end in Wyoming. Of course I know you’ll be happy to pay the toll when it saves you a couple days drive on your vacation to Zion Nat. Park.
    Of course, a lot of the supposed “federal spending largesse” in the West is due to the fact that one of thee largest employers IS the Federal Govt. WE could cut that expense in half. God knows how our state parks can ever function without federal aid and the millions of acres of state “school section land” must be losing money. I’m not calling federal workers lazy, they’re not, I’m just saying you work in a system that created the NEPA industry that cranks out nothing but millions of pages of paper that no one ever reads.
    And no one ever counts how much money “leaves” with the federal govt. States get only “half” of the mineral royalties from oil and gas that is produced on federal lands. In Montana, in 2010, the Fed’s walked away with something like 80 million dollars. That ought to pay for some highway work. And they’re just beginning to produce the Bakken. God knows what Wyoming gets screwed out of. Probably enough to pay for several BLM’s.
    Do you wonder why the price of beef, corn, wheat, and oil are so high right now in the middle of the great recession? Our good friends in China. Commodity production is going to be the future. Makes you wonder how much of the “largesse imbalance” was due to “farm price supports.” Well, the CRP land is getting plowed under fellas.
    Health insurance? Since there is no “portability” outside of states, I sense that we pay our own health bill. Schools? I wasn’t aware that the Federal govt. is building our new school. I’m sure there’s many wonderful grant programs to dip out of-here as well as L.A. Social Security? I thought everybody paid there own way. Defense, Yes, I agree they should have placed the Minute Man missile silos on the coast of California. That all said, I would probably say the West is still a Welfare state, just not to the extent of popular perception.

    Now, whatever happened to Frank Popper and his Buffalo Commons Theory. I’m sure I don’t have to explain it here. Frank’s theory was based on the idea that declining demographics pointed to a future where ranchers would abandon their hopeless existence on the plains (the “if current trends continue trap”). The failure of Franks plan was based on the fact that he never looked at the price of land. No one was abandoning the land. In fact the price of ranch land has doubled in the years since his theory disappeared. As far as demographics—remember when farm families had 7 kids so they could do the dreary farm labor. Now they only have 1.8 kids per family. You can blame John Deere for declining family size.

    • As I was preparing this post, I spent part of a morning reading History of Public Land Law Development, here: http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/wwdl-doc&CISOPTR=5226

      I did so to refresh my memory as to how convoluted the issues of public lands, statehood, and nation building are — that spinmeisters, in this case “states rights” and “county “supremacy” advocates reduce to “We live here, so this land is ours. Go away, big bad FEDS!

      My readings led me to intertwined issues, including federal land purchases, taxes, receipts to fund a federal government that prior to 1913 couldn’t collect income taxes, wars, legal maneuvers, and much more that predated petitions for states to be admitted to the US. Oddly, the “History” was written (1968, as part of a Public Land Law Review Commission) in a moment when it looked like the many sagebrush rebellions that predated the one that welled-up around 1980 seemed to have settled into civility. (see, p. 32, from preface.).

      Little did the authors foresee a time like now — ‘lessons we don’t learn from history’ — when those ‘advocates’ would be as vocal as ever and have a substantial TEA Party movement to give them added ‘voice’.

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