- Historic Sites
Does The West Have A Death Wish?
Before there were Western states, there were public lands—over a billion acres irrevocably reserved for the people of the United States. The Sagebrush Rebels are the most recent in a series of covetous groups bent on “regaining” what was never theirs.
June/july 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 4
What first aroused De Vote’s wrath was word of a meeting in Salt Lake City between the American National Livestock Association, a trade group of cattlemen, and the National Woolgrowers Association. For years the cattlemen and sheepmen had been warring tribes. But in the summer of 1946 they declared a truce and used the peace to begin preparing legislation that would “return” to the states 142,000,000 acres of rangelands regulated by the Taylor Grazing Act and another 80,000,000 acres of grazing lands within national forests. The lands were to be transferred to the states, and the states would then dispose of them—to none other than the stockmen at the meeting, along with select others. The proposed legislation allowed only those stockmen with current grazing permits on federal lands to have the option to buy these lands, for as little as nine cents an acre, at 10 per cent down, 1.5 per cent interest, and thirty years to pay the balance. The stockmen sedulously renounced their claims to any of the minerals or oil reserves beneath the land they should buy, although their proposal stipulated that the owners of the surface rights should be reimbursed for any damages done during mineral exploration and extraction.
Sagebrush is often the mark of an already abused range. It settles like a resolute gray lather on land that has been overgrazed.
If De Voto s prose on the matter was truculent, so was that of J. Elmer Brock, the vice-chairman and spokesman of the Joint National Livestock Committee, which was preparing the legislation for both stockmen organizations. To repudiate the charges of greed in De Voto’s Harper’s article, Brock, a rancher from Kaycee, Wyoming, wrote a guest editorial in the Denver Post. “Do we have statehood in the West?” he wrote. “We do not. … These so-called Western states have been denied their forests, minerals, power sites, scenic wonders, one-half their surface area. Their industries can’t compete with those of the older states, where resources are in private ownership. The users of grazing lands must conform to the whims of numerous federal bureaus, all predacious and most of them tinged with pink or even deeper hue. Yes, we are denied the American form of government. Federal ownership or control of land is a form of communism. ”
No doctrine as pernicious as communism was afoot here, however. Merely history.
In a poem, Robert Frost once regarded the public domain of the United States as the land that was ours before we were the land’s. “She was our land more than a hundred years/Before we were her people,” he wrote. This delicate but splendid domain was composed of the land “vaguely realizing westward,/ But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,/ Such as she was, such as she would become.” In all there have been about 1,400,000,000 acres of public domain, which is all the land bounded by the forty-eight continental states except for Texas and the Thirteen Colonies. From the moment the United States bought each piece of territory from sagging European powers for as little as five cents an acre, or went to war for it, in which case the price was considerably higher, the federal government owned the land.
The concept of a public domain came about in 1779 when six of the original states objected to the other seven’s vast holdings beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Tiny, irregularly drawn Maryland raised the biggest fuss at the Continental Congress, maintaining that if these lands had also been won from the British at the time of independence by “common blood and treasury of the thirteen states,” then they should belong to all of them. Maryland’s representatives suggested that the lands be kept by the federal government until such time as they might be formed into “free, convenient and independent governments.” Furthermore, Maryland declared it would have no part of this confederation if the states with the large claims retained them. In 1780 New York and in 1784 Virginia renounced their territories. By 1802 all states had given up their lands to the fledgling government.
In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase added to the United States nearly 1,000,000 square miles of unexplored wilderness, thereby doubling its size. Later this land was carved into all or part of the present states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North and South Dakota, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. In 1819 America bought Florida for about $6,500,000 from Spain. Then, through war with Mexico in 1848, it acquired an area equal to the size of California, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and New Mexico. The nation’s pioneers had streamed into the Pacific Northwest by 1846, when the northern border of the United States was drawn at the fortyninth parallel, and eventually the states of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon were formed. When Texas entered the Union in 1845, it retained all the land within its borders, since it had been originally created as an independent republic. But in 1850 it sold its claims beyond its borders to the U.S. government for about nineteen cents an acre.