The Forestry Source on “Sagebrush Rebellion Renewed”

The April issue of The Forestry Source, leads off with “The Sagebrush Rebellion Renewed: Bills Aim to Create Trusts to Manage Federal Timber,” by Steve Wilent, Forestry Source editor. The article begins with what I perceive to be a very narrow view of the origins of the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion, blaming it all on “environmentalists”. The article ends with what I perceive to be cheerleading for “forest trusts” as a solution to current problems including the impending drying up of “Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act” funding. It is an opinion-editorial, so Wilent is entitled to his perspective. But I thought I’d share it with you, since my own framing of this matter is much different. I see the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion being just one of many from a West that was always angry over public lands. In my frame, fully funding Payments in Lieu of Taxes is a better solution to the rural schools problem. And I find the “forests trusts” idea a non-starter in dealing with America’s national forests.

Wilent’s article begins:

In his 1993 book, Federal Land, Western Anger R. McGregor Cawley describes the Sagebrush Rebellion as “a protest originating from three interrelated perceptions: first, that environmentalists had succeeded in gaining a dominant position in federal land policy discussions; second that the environmental community’s influence had created an underlying bias in favor of preservation over development in federal land management decisions throughout the 1970s; and third, that the only way to counteract the increasingly restrictive character of federal land management decisions was to precipitate an open confrontation.”

The first shot in that confrontation was fired in 1979, when the Nevada state legislature passed a bill that sought to transfer control of 40 million acres managed by the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – about 79% of Nevada – to the state. …

In February, Utah fired a new salvo when its house of representative passed the Transfer of Public Lands Act&#8230.

My own framing, built in part off the Public Land Law Review Commission’s “History of Public Land Law Development”, here, tracks the Sagebrush Rebellions (several of them, with continued skirmishes in between) back to the fights for statehood in the USA. In my state of Utah the fight was nasty and long-standing. Some Utahan’s were mad back then and continue to be mad today, with their anger welling-up periodically. Ron Arnold may have captured the spirit of that 1980s “Rebellion” as well as did the Society of American Foresters (SAF) article, calling it “a temper-tantrum over public lands thrown by a handful of cowboys”. That “temper-tantrum” turned into yet-another bandwagon that powerful rural Western politicians could jump onto—which they ultimately parlayed into substantial gains. Here is what Frank J. Popper had to say about these “gains” in “A Timely End of the Sagebrush Rebellion” (pdf), National Affairs 76, Summer 1984.

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]

Another look at the 1980s Sagebrush Rebellion, from “A Brief History of the Anti-conservation Movement” frames the issues as conservatives v. liberals:

At its most basic level the Sagebrush Rebellion was a conservative backlash against the growth of federal power represented by, among other things, such landmark environmental legislation of the late 1960s and ’70s as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. These legislative programs created new roles and concerns for managers of federal land — protection of endangered species, water quality, air quality, etc. This required closer scrutiny of activities on federal lands, including the activities of miners, loggers and ranchers who operated there. Significantly, these businesses usually enjoyed substantial operating subsidies by virtue of longstanding below-market rates for grazing, mineral and timber rights on federal land. This closer scrutiny inevitably led to federally imposed restrictions when mining, grazing and foresting practices damaged the water and air and threatened endangered species. Recognizing that a return to the good old days of less regulation would be good for business, the movement took support and comfort from the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, one of whose campaign planks was reduction of the size and power of government. Certain Reagan cabinet appointees, most notably James Watt as Secretary of the Interior and Anne Gorsuch as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, were selected in part for their willingness to further the de-regulatory agenda of Reagan and the right wing of the Republican Party. …

The Anti-Conservation Movement further benefitted from the attention it received from industries with something to gain. In particular, big agriculture (the American Farm Bureau Federation, The Cattlemen’s Association), the extractive industries (mining, including coal, oil and gas) and timber producers (who thrive on easy access to federal forest lands) saw a reduction of federal regulatory power working to their advantage. This message of the economic benefit of deregulation appealed as well to small businesses. After all, if workplace safety regulations could be reduced or eliminated, the money saved could be plowed back into the business.

During this period anti-regulatory forces sought to define and project an agenda that would be publicly acceptable. Throughout the 1980s the anti-regulatory/anti-environmental sentiment was expressed largely as support for the Reagan Revolution and its promise to deliver the country from the clutches of over-zealous, regulation-happy bureaucrats.

In studying the various Sagebrush Rebellions we would all probably benefit from a good class on the history of the American West. Here is one (pdf, syllabus) from Professor Chris Lewis, from the University of Colorado. Lewis places Cawley’s book in a class lecture on “‘The Lords of Yesterday’ and the Sagebrush Rebellion”. The book is well-placed there, since it is evidently written from the perspective of ‘the rebels’, according to a Great Plains Research book review (pdf). There is nothing wrong with that. One of my favorite books is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which is unabashedly written from the perspective of those who lost (and/or who were horrible abused) in the struggles to form the United States. Zinn acknowledges his bias, but is quick to note that no “history” is written without bias. But what is wrong with Wilent’s piece, in my opinion, is to use the book to suggest that one particular perspective is the only perspective that counts. Still, opinion/editorial pieces often do that. So, I’ll just leave it at, “I beg to differ”.

Wilent’s article goes on to highlight various ongoing problems including the impending falldown in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act funding—problems which are clearly still with us. These problems don’t necessarily cry out for the solutions that are being proffered in the various bills currently working their way through Congress. But you wouldn’t arrive at that particular conclusion from Wilent’s article, which concludes by essentially cheerleading attempts to put federal land management into “land trusts.” “Cheerleading” is how I see it. What Wilent actually said was this: “Management by a trust dedicated to maintaining revenues to schools and other beneficiaries may offer a solution. …”

Wilent didn’t bother to daylight any other “solutions.” So cheerleading is where I’ll leave it. When dealing with ‘trusts’ my question is, as has been for a long time, “Land trusts provide a solution to what?” Yes land trusts are a good way to generate revenue if that is all you are interested in. But I thought that the ‘public trust doctrine’, under which the national forests were carved out and managed, is much broader than ‘revenue generation’. And we are not living in 1900, when income taxes and other revenue generation means now available to the federal government were not established.

In the middle of Wilent’s article, John Freemuth is quoted on both the complexity of federal lands management and his desire to reconvene a Public Lands Law Review Commission. I support Freemuth’s desire. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that just about no one who is ranting and raving in this (or the last) Sagebrush Rebellion has ever read the last Public Lands Law Review Commission Report. Why should we expect a new one to add value to this debacle? Still, I would like to see a new one, if only to force the Administration and the Congress to delve deeper into the issues (and the history) surrounding our “Angry West”. But I’m not sure that a re-reading of the original Public Lands Law Review Commission Report wouldn’t suffice to dispel myths surrounding each seemingly-novel episode when the American West, particularly the “rural West” explodes anew in yet-another “temper-tantrum.” I guess we all get to pick our frames, and our scapegoats.

Related NCFP Posts:
Free America From Her Public Lands?
Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion Awakens
The Frame Game
The Blame Game

11 thoughts on “The Forestry Source on “Sagebrush Rebellion Renewed””

  1. Don’t forget John Rupe’s post “Dreaming About Reforming Public Land Laws.”

    I actually read the previous land law review to John as we were driving to Rapid, helping prepare our boss’s talk at the conference at CU. The 1970 version is way outdated but the ideas are worth consciously bringing into the future, IMHO.

    Also, I do think that we need to listen to what these efforts are trying to tell us. It is perhaps too easy to say “oh it’s just the same old thing.” But is it? what are they trying to tell us? And is anyone listening to the concerns that lie behind this version?

    • what are they trying to tell us? And is anyone listening to the concerns that lie behind this version?

      I hope people are listening to what is behind the concerns that are welling up. But I fear that they are too distrasted, too disempowered to even try to listen, organize, and act. And I hope people understand enough of the history behind the concerns to get public discourse going. I hope people are not too distracted by their facebook pages, TV, and other theatrics, to forget (or worse, never know) what they have lost, are now losing, and are about to lose; e.g. Lost Landscapes, Failed Economies, Plundered Promise: Capitalism, Democracy, and the Fate of the Federal Lands, The End of Nature, and on and on and on.

        • If the Sagebrush rebels get the national forests? Don’t you think that might speed up the the ‘End of Nature’ as we know it? It has been a long time since I read Bill McKibbon’s book, but I think his thesis is still sound: “McKibben’s argument [is] that the survival of the globe is dependent on a fundamental, philosophical shift in the way we relate to nature.”
          It is not Nature that will end. It is us, either in total or at least in our “quality of life.”

          If the far-right [and who are the Sagebrush Rebels if not the “far right,” else those puppeteered by the far right] has its way, I’m not sure that life will have any “quality,” just monetized “quantity,” handed “up” to the ever-more wealthy. Privatize it all! That’s OK for the likes of James Watt (Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior)– who made no apology for his agenda, since, in his mind ‘the second coming’ (Jesus as GOD and Redeemer of all) was/is at hand. But it is not OK by me.

          • I tend to think that litigation reform would be a much easier way to fix the problems we are experiencing today, than the extreme fantasy of liquidating Federal lands. The answer lays in the middle ground but, some still despise the idea of compromise.

          • I actually potentially see it as the quest for local folks who are not wealthy, to react against the determination of their choices by outsiders, both rich newcomers and the rich externals that seem to run things through our current structure. The politicos pick up on this feeling and run with it.

            LIke Larry, I don’t think it’s going to happen. More on McKibben’s thesis later.

  2. So the state of Washington had $100 million dollars in timber sale revenues with only $30 million in management costs, in FY 2011,in the middle of the great recession. So the state makes $3.00 in revenue for every $1.00 in cost on their timber sales. You’re an economist Dave, whats your take on why the states make so much while the USFS has below cost timber sales. Can anyone share any “research” that’s been done on that disparity. Maybe we should save that for another post.

    And I noticed Mac McConnell had his story published. I think I’ll send him an email of congratulations.

    • My belief is that the Forest Service has below cost timber sales because they can. That is they do not have to show a profit, and can use “multiple use,” i.e. wildlife habitat improvement, ecosystem restoration, etc. as justification for what they consider below cost but above benefit timber sales, or whatever they call their projects these days.

      My problem with the Forest Service is not that projects are “below cost,” but that they are not well-vetted as to “benefit.” My economic advice always was that the agency account for its costs, and in mostly non-monetary (qualitative) terms justify those costs relative to benefits as investments in a future that the American people would be proud of.

      As Albert Einstein once quipped: “Most of what counts, can’t be counted.” (or something like that)

      • There are also “covenants” within timber sale contracts, which must be appraised for, implemented and paid for with logs. Road maintenance costs can be significant, especially when existing Forest Service roads haven’t seen a project in years. Roads MUST be watered when log hauling is happening, to save the fine materials that hold the road surface together. That costs money. Slash treatments, including physical removal and hand piling, often costs very significant amounts. This is especially true, here in California, where projects deal with fuels reductions first, and commercial log removal is less emphasized. I think it is important that these “value-added” tasks are part of the Forest Service’s plans.

        Sadly, the timber industry is less-inclined to pay for the extra expensive tasks. I have seen projects up for bid, at base rates, where the mill won’t bid on it, due to the extra costs lumped into it. Also, sometimes they pass on the extra costs to their logging contractors. I once ran into one purchasers, whose policy was to not include a copy of the timber sale contract to their contractors. Otherwise, the logger would want more money to do the job. In the end, I would have to explain to the logger the many tasks that are required under the contract. Ultimately, it is the purchaser’s responsibility to get the work done.

        • On Montana DNRC timber sales, in addition to paying for the stumpage,the “purchaser” pays for new roads, temp roads, and road maintenance. There is no “purchaser road credit”. Also an additional “forest improvement fee” is paid for slash disposal, burning, future thinning, ect. ect. I wonder who pays for USFS temp roads or new roads today? Is the road credit still alive? I’ll find out the details eventually from my timber beast friends. While Montana’s DNRC lists “timber sale bid results” and prospectus’s on their website-lord knows where the USFS posts that info for comparison-I hope not on the FEDBIZOPS site. A link would be helpfull if anyone knows? Good for apples to apples comparisons.

          It’s time the below cost timber sale story is resurrected. It’ll make a good story. It’s enough that the public knows the states make money and the feds don’t.

          You’re right about the lack of USFS “profit motive”. It’s pathetic to read of projects like the Aspen-Sopris on the White River forest in Colorado. It calls for”non-commercial” slashing (coppicing)of small diameter aspen and masticating sage on something like 15,000 acres followed by RX burning. Why don’t they just wait for the inevitable wildfire to come along and do it for them? My tax dollars paying for Pop forestry.

    • Federal lands are the backbone of virtually every major recovery plan. While DNR lands merely try to modestly reduce adverse impacts on listed species, but DNR lands are still “sinks” instead of “sources” for most wildlife. Differences in cost of production are mostly related to this and the cost of public participation and ESA consultation, which are worth every penny to those of us who use them.


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