- 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
“I saw waste, competition, overuse and abuse of valuable rangeland and watersheds eating into the very heart of the Western economy.”
Meanwhile the condition of the ranges on the unappropriated portion of the public domain was too poor to ignore. Efforts to correct the situation kept encountering the “cow bloc.” But in 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act, sometimes called the Magna Carta of conservation. For the first time it gave the Secretary of the Interior the legal authority to manage public lands for grazing purposes. More than 140,000,000 acres came under the districts jointly supervised by local ranchers and government agents. The Taylor lands were probably the most severely abused. They were the driest to begin with, and rampant overgrazing had turned them into deserts within two generations.
“I saw waste, competition, overuse and abuse of valuable rangeland and watersheds eating into the very heart of the Western economy,” said Senator Edward Taylor of Colorado, who sponsored the grazing bill in Congress. There was “terrific strife and bloodshed between cattle and sheepmen, erosion, yes, terrific human erosion had taken root.” According to Taylor, a rancher, the livestock industry was headed for self-strangulation, and his Grazing Act virtually closed the public domain to homesteading and private acquisition.
With hard-won government controls and corrective measures under way on one part of the public lands, the Forest Service began talking more about what it needed to do to stem the rapid destruction of natural resources. A study in 1936 found that the range could support only 10,800,000 cattle where it once could have fed 22,000,000. In 1942, memos from top professionals warned the fieldmen not to repeat the mistakes of World War I, when the ranges were overstocked. The range was the basic resource to be protected, the men were told, not the cattle.
In 1944 the Forest Service cautiously began announcing cutbacks for the most depleted national forests. Personnel changes were also made, and selfdescribed crusaders for range improvements moved into the region needing the most improvement. That region happened to include Wyoming and Colorado, the home states of many of the most influential men in the stock business. Cutbacks on some ranges were as high as 100 per cent, which meant the range would be closed to all grazing. In most cases the cutback was substantially less, but regardless of what was called for, the stockmen balked.
Those affected by the cuts were to be given three to five years to reduce their stock or find private grazing lands. The cutbacks were to be instituted in 1946, when the new ten-year-permit term began. Foresters spent days riding the ranges with theii permittees, explaining why bare soil was an indication of improper stocking. In most cases the foresters were rewarded with verbal abuse, requests for their transfer to other districts, and even threats to their lives.
On August 17, 1946, “representative sheep men and cattle men from the Western states met at Salt Lake City to perfect an organization for the purpose of promoting a satisfactory ultimate disposition of the public domain,” reported the newsletter of the American National Livestock Association. “The meeting was a success and there was almost unanimous sentiment for passing the lands administered by the Taylor Act into private control directly from the federal government.” During the fall more meetings were held to draw up the legislation that would accomplish this. As described earlier, the resulting legislation provided for the conversion of the stockmen’s regulated grazing privilege to a statutory right, beyond adjustment by federal agencies. The legislation also recommended distribution of all Taylor grazing lands to the states, pending their disposition to individuals; the grazing lands within the national forests should also be similarly gotten rid of.
The leaders of the movement said they were led by the “spirit and actions” of Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada. A few years before, Senator McCarran had emasculated the Grazing Service, which was charged with administering the Taylor grazing lands, by reducing its budget by two-thirds and its staff by about 80 per cent. The stockmen’s legislative proposal was merely an extension of bills that already had been presented in Congress. Chief among these was Senate Bill 1945, which De Voto later branded as “both transparent and carnivorous.” Senator E. V. Robertson, a Wyoming sheep and cattle rancher, requested in this bill that all unappropriated and unreserved lands, along with their mineral reserves, be transferred to the Western public land states. His bill also called for the establishment of state commissions to evaluate all public lands, including national parks and monuments, to see if they could best be used in some other way. (This provision, incidentally, greatly resembles one now being proposed by advocates of the Sagebrush Rebellion. )