Does The West Have A Death Wish?

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So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther, but there it is—and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever. It is the Western mind stripped to the basic split. The West as its own worst enemy. The West committing suicide.

—Bernard De Voto “The West Against Itself” Harper’s Magazine, January, 1947

A Wyoming rancher named Baskett took a ride across the open range one day in 1920 with a man who was looking for oil. “The oilman showed me all those synclines and domes he’d like to drill through,” the rancher recalled years later. “We’d had plenty of snow that winter and the grass was real good. So I said to the oil man, ‘If I might have the surface of all these lands, you may have all the oil that lies beneath, and we would both be happy.’”

Some sixty years after this rancher and oilman struck their wistful bargain out of the fine clear air of the West, the sort of happiness they described is still being sought. In the last few years the drive for private or state ownership and control of national resources has bestirred a movement called the Sagebrush Rebellion. Ranchers back this rebellion, and so do those with money, whose grand designs for energy and real estate development chafe against the boundaries of the federally regulated public domain. Uniting all these interests is the wish to rid the West of federal supervision of rangelands, national forests, national parks, and perhaps other public places. These are the open lands with the awesome space and the vast yet finite resources that are now and for many years have been administered by government bureaus.

If the Sagebrush Rebellion were to achieve its ultimate objective, there probably would be no federally owned and controlled land. Instead, the land would be turned over to the states in which it lies. The states, being more “responsive”—as the Sagebrush Rebels put it—to the pressure of local special interest groups, would either manage the lands as those groups demanded or would sell them to private concerns to do with as they pleased. One of the things the states or private sector would be least likely to do with the land is to conserve it, since conservation, in the minds of many, runs against the grain of profits.

Favoring business development and a reduced federal role in state affairs, President Reagan once called himself a rebel of the Sagebrush persuasion, giving the movement new validity and winning himself more friends in the West. Reagan was, after all, a bit nonplussed to learn that so much land in the West is under federal control and he is also supposed to have suggested that a presidential commission look into the matter. “Why,” he reportedly asked while campaigning, “is there all this public land in the West, where there is practically none in the rest of the country?”

The Sagebrush Rebellion is a new name, but the sentiment behind it is nearly as old as the public domain itself. “To a historian,” wrote Bernard De Voto in 1947 of a similar movement against federally held lands, “it has the beauty of any historical continuity. It is the Western psychology working within the pattern its own nature has set. It is the forever recurrent lust to liquidate the West that is so large a part of Western history.”

The Sagebrush Rebellion is also a name that could make many a good rancher wince, though he might share its aims. For sagebrush is often the mark of an already abused range. It settles like a resolute gray lather on land that has been overgrazed by sheep and cattle to the point that beneficial and nutritious grasses have been driven out and soil erosion has set in. So sagebrush is not a flattering designation for what today’s rebels proclaim is a superior land management policy. But the movement in the 1940’s (about which De Voto wrote) was called something even more insulting; he labeled that land-disposition drive, backed by ranchers, as “one of the biggest landgrabs in American history.”

His more than forty articles blasting the proponents and goals of the 1940’s land-grab earned De Voto the distinction of being called the greatest conservationist of the twentieth century. From January, 1947, until his death eight years later, De Voto analyzed the “stockman psychology” in his “Easy Chair” column for Harper’s Magazine . A native of Ogden, Utah, he felt he knew that attitude firsthand. By overgrazing sheep and cattle, stockmen were a chief cause of the destruction of essential Western watersheds, De Voto declared. “Cattlemen and sheepmen, I repeat, want to shovel most of the West into its rivers,” he wrote in his first polemic, “The West Against Itself.” The stock business, he said, “had done more damage to the West than any other.”