Sagebrush Rebellion Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Sagebrush Rebellion, an attempt to convert federally owned land in the American West to private and state ownership, can be considered a failure in the light of its goals, given that federal lands remained in the public domain. However, the movement changed the policy debate regarding public lands and advanced the ethic of multiple-use management.

Summary of Event

In 1976, passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act Federal Land Policy and Management Act (1976) laid the groundwork for a political movement in twelve western U.S. states that became known as the Sagebrush Rebellion. The movement was named for the sagebrush plant, which was widely found in many of the states involved: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. The 1976 act strengthened the discretionary powers of the Bureau of Land Management Bureau of Land Management, U.S. (BLM), which had jurisdiction over federal lands, most of which lay in the western states. The act also included provisions for so-called multiple use of public lands. Sagebrush Rebellion Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.] [kw]Sagebrush Rebellion Begins (June 2, 1979) [kw]Rebellion Begins, Sagebrush (June 2, 1979) Sagebrush Rebellion Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.] [g]North America;June 2, 1979: Sagebrush Rebellion Begins[03610] [g]United States;June 2, 1979: Sagebrush Rebellion Begins[03610] [c]Natural resources;June 2, 1979: Sagebrush Rebellion Begins[03610] [c]Environmental issues;June 2, 1979: Sagebrush Rebellion Begins[03610] [c]Agriculture;June 2, 1979: Sagebrush Rebellion Begins[03610] Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;environmental policy Watt, James G. Clark, William P. Hatch, Orrin G. Rhoads, Dean A. Santini, James D.

Cattle ranchers, miners, loggers, developers, farmers, and others had viewed the increase of environmental regulations in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s with alarm, considering them detrimental to economic growth. Economic self-interest was a driving force for the rebellious states, as was the conviction that states and individuals should have the right to use their environments as they wished, without federal controls and interference.

About 93 percent of the lands owned by the federal government and 99 percent of BLM lands were located in the twelve Sagebrush states. The federal government owned about 33 percent of the nation’s lands, mostly in the West from the Sierra Nevada to the Rocky Mountains. Of the land west of the Rockies, 44 percent was under BLM jurisdiction. The U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. controlled another 16 percent, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. controlled 8 percent, and the U.S. National Park Service National Park Service, U.S. controlled 6 percent. Five states had more than 50 percent of their lands in federal ownership, and the federal government owned about 33 percent in six others.

Cities and towns in the intermountain West and Alaska were urban islands surrounded by public lands; they were restricted from expanding and often from controlling their own economies. The low fees charged for use of public lands did not cover the federal expenses of adequately managing them; in any case, the federal government was often a poor manager of public land.

On June 2, 1979, the state of Nevada enacted a law (Assembly Bill 413, authored by Dean A. Rhoads) that claimed title to the forty-eight million acres of federal lands within its borders, lands that amounted to 79 percent of the state. Other western states soon acted to support Nevada’s action. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming enacted legislation similar to the Nevada law; Wyoming even extended its claim to U.S. Forest Service lands. Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt Babbitt, Bruce vetoed that state’s bill, but the veto was overridden by the state legislature; later, Arizona voters defeated an initiative to repeal the law. Hawaii and North Dakota also passed resolutions supporting the rebellion. In the 1982 election in Alaska—where 96 percent of the land was federally owned—Sagebrush initiatives to claim 56 percent of the BLM lands in the state won 72.5 percent of the vote. Sagebrush Rebellion measures were defeated, however, by legislative vote or governor vetoes in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and South Dakota.

Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican U.S. senator from Utah, and James D. Santini, a Democratic congressman from Nevada, introduced bills in both the Ninety-sixth and Ninety-seventh Congresses that would have transferred ownership of federal lands to state control. One of the bills, the Western Lands Distribution and Regional Equalization Act, would have transferred 544 million acres to the states, but both bills failed to pass out of committee.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan proclaimed himself a “Sagebrush Rebel” and pledged that as president he would call a national conference to support the campaign. In 1981, President Reagan appointed an advocate of the Sagebrush Rebellion, James G. Watt, as secretary of the interior. Traditionally, that post had been held by individuals who championed protection of the environment and conservation of the nation’s natural resources.

Whereas many believed that privatization of federal lands was the only answer to the dispute, Secretary Watt was convinced that the Sagebrush Rebellion had been caused by arrogant federal management rather than by the fact of federal ownership of western lands. He developed what he called a “good neighbor policy” that he hoped would resolve the conflict.

In his 1982 fiscal year budget address, Reagan suggested selling federal lands to reduce the national debt. Unexpectedly, the suggestion of privatization met with strong opposition from both the Sagebrush Rebels and environmentalists. Watt also opposed the idea, and his disagreements with Reagan over land policies and his abusive objections to environmental protection led to his resignation in 1983. By the mid-1980’s, the Sagebrush Rebellion was over.


The Sagebrush Rebellion was a protest originating from the perception that environmentalists had succeeded in gaining a dominant position in federal policy decisions concerning land, that the federal land-use decisions of the 1970’s were biased in favor of preservation over development, and that the only way to counteract increasingly restrictive federal land-management decisions was to precipitate an open confrontation. The Sagebrush Rebels were advocates of commodity production and related uses of public lands.

The Reagan administration found clever, politically appealing ways to transfer some federal lands to private ownership. Its “good neighbor policy” allowed state and local governments to request surplus federal lands, and an asset-management program allowed federal agencies to sell excess lands. Fears of giveaways of public lands to large mining, timber, or cattle corporations fueled fears of increased environmental damage to these lands. Once states estimated the amount of revenues needed for management of newly acquired federal lands, their zeal for acquisition disappeared.

Watt’s replacement as secretary of the interior, William P. Clark, continued the Reagan administration’s push for privatization of federal lands, but after the 1984 election, Reagan appointed Donald Hodel Hodel, Donald to succeed Clark. As Watt’s assistant, Hodel had championed accelerated development of federal lands, especially in the western states that had coal and oil reserves. As interior secretary, Hodel resumed Watt’s plans and philosophy.

Environmental groups that opposed what they considered to be the misuse of public lands underwent various changes in response to the threat of the Sagebrush Rebellion. The membership and funding of many environmental groups skyrocketed, and, as a result, many groups began to stress that professional management of public lands was needed. Some groups became more cooperative and less confrontational toward the federal agencies responsible for public lands. In a backlash against what they saw as compromise on vital environmental protection issues, radical members within the mainstream conservation movement developed splinter groups such as Earth First! Earth First! The philosophical split between environmental moderates and extremists was triggered directly by the Sagebrush Rebellion.

By the fall of 1983, once the Reagan administration had abandoned its privatization initiative, the Sagebrush Rebellion had been defused. Reagan’s appointments after his 1984 reelection made it clear that he planned to orient his public-land policies toward more use but in a less directly confrontational manner.

There is little evidence that the Sagebrush Rebellion produced long-term consequences in federal land policy. Public lands remained federally owned, and they continued to be managed under the environmental mandates of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Reagan administration reached a stalemate in the public-land arena. It did not eliminate protection mandates, but it effectively slowed or blunted their implementation through bureaucratic procedures. In the 1988 presidential election, Republican presidential candidate George H. W. Bush Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;environmental policy pledged to be an “environmental president” if elected.

In August, 1988, a national conference on multiple-use strategy was held in Reno, Nevada; this conference marked the beginning of the wise-use movement. Wise-use movement[Wise use movement] Many Sagebrush advocates attended, as did many off-road vehicle users and others with mining, grazing, timber, and farming interests. The movement took its name from the definition of conservation stated by American forester Gifford Pinchot Pinchot, Gifford (1865-1946): the “wise use” of natural resources. The views of this group on the proper uses of public lands, especially in the West, echoed those of the original Sagebrush Rebels.

The Sagebrush Rebellion was a political movement that was supported by people who believed that federal land-management policies had become too responsive to environmental and preservationist values. The movement had some impact on public-land policies and viewpoints, but it did not resolve basic disagreements about the function of and human responsibility for the natural environment. Sagebrush Rebellion Land-use policy, U.S.[Land use policy, U.S.]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arnold, Ron. At the Eye of the Storm: James Watt and the Environmentalists. Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1982. Unbiased treatment of the controversial tenure of James Watt as secretary of the interior. Includes an excellent discussion of this turbulent period of U.S. resource management.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cawley, R. McGreggor. Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1993. One of the best overall treatments of the Sagebrush Rebellion available. Provides detailed discussion of all aspects of the conflict.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dana, Samuel Trask, and Sally K. Fairfax. Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980. An excellent starting point for understanding the historical conflicts over U.S. public lands.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Charles, ed. Western Public Lands and Environmental Politics. 2d ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. Collection of essays examines relationships among political organizations, economic conditions, interest groups, and other factors that influence public-land policy in the western United States. Includes tables, figures, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geisler, Charles C., and Frank Popper. Land Reform, American Style. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984. Provides specific chapter reviews of some of the main land-use disputes and conflicts over public lands. Includes a clear summary of the events and results of the Sagebrush Rebellion through the early 1980’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gottlieb, Alan M., ed. The Wise Use Agenda: The Citizen’s Policy Guide to Environmental Resource Issues. Bellevue, Wash.: Free Enterprise Press, 1989. Outlines the philosophy of the “wise use” movement, which succeeded the Sagebrush Rebellion, and explains the movement’s political agenda. An important resource for understanding the goals of the antienvironmentalist movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watt, James G., with Doug Wead. The Courage of a Conservative. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985. Presents Watt’s strong views on what needs to be done in the political structure of the United States to ensure the country’s survival. Gives background to many of his land-use decisions during his tenure as secretary of the interior.

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Categories: History