- 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
J. Elmer Brock, the vice-chairman of the committee that prepared the legislation, expressed the view of many when he asserted that stockmen had a “responsibility” to turn grass into usable wealth. “I’m somewhat at a loss to find out why we should be charged a fee for performing a service that other industries received a subsidy for,” he said at one meeting. Brock, however, was overlooking the tariff placed on imported wool to protect the domestic sheep industry, and the cost of grazing on public lands, which, at twenty-seven cents an animal each month, was less than half of what it cost to lease private grazing lands.
Yet by no means were all stock associations and Western chambers of commerce in agreement with the Joint National Livestock Committee’s aims. The Ogden Chamber of Commerce noted that the town residents had had to purchase private grazing lands above town to turn them over to the Forest Service to control because of the threat of flash floods. “A dismal experience endured by our community reveals that livestock interests can’t be depended upon to treat grazing lands in a manner that safeguards neighboring communities from alternate flood and drought,” reported the Ogden officials. The experience was common in Utah.
Perhaps the stockmen had counted on monolithic support around the region when they made their recommendations. They did not get it. A more serious misjudgment related to how much they angered the national press and bestirred what author William Voigt, Jr., called “a ragtag army” of conservationists, spearheaded by the Izaak Walton League. In the media, De Voto broke the story first, but another chief writer was Arthur Carhart, a Denver conservationist.
In an article entitled “Raiders on the Range,” Carhart reduced the issue of land ownership to a few simple numbers. “Cattle grazing on the national forest represents approximately threefourths of one percent of the cattle produced in the nation, and only 4.3 percent of Western beef cattle produced,” he wrote. And the number of permittees who were asserting that they were the only ones who deserved to own some 220,000,000 acres was a mere handful out of about seventeen thousand permittees in all! Carhart insisted that the value of protecting the watershed was far greater than all other uses of the national forests combined, which included timber sales, grazing fees, and recreational uses. Grazing lands were being valued at from nine cents to three dollars an acre. But for watershed purposes those lands were valued at about fifty dollars an acre. Furthermore, grass could even be considered the least significant resource the Taylor grazing lands had to offer, what with the untallied stores of mineral wealth that lay beneath.
“Is conservation best promoted by enterprise and initiative?” asked Hugh Woodward, president of a New Mexico game protection association, in one regional publication in 1947. “The denuded and fire blackened areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin; the gullied impoverished cotton farms of Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee; the dust bowl areas of the Dakotas, eastern Colorado, western Kansas and the Panhandle of Oklahoma; the grossly polluted streams and rivers of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Ohio Valley; the silt-covered and flood-stricken lowlands of the Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas; the erosion problems of Texas; the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast states shriek, ‘no, no, no.’ ”
Diverse conservation groups began supporting the Forest Service, believing, as De Voto did, that “public lands are the only responsibility of the government besides atomic energy about which Congress could make an irretrievable mistake, one that could not be corrected later.” If the stockmen had prepared legislation calling for the disposition of the Taylor lands alone- those vast “unwanted” wastes—they might have succeeded. But they had sought some of the visual jewels of the nation by including the grazing lands of the national forests. As Western opposition grew, the land-grab began to shrivel and die. Many of the effort’s strongest congressional supporters went so far as to disclaim any knowledge of such legislation, once they saw how angry their constituents were about it. The longing for the lands did not die, however, it merely took a new form. Ownership would not be directly sought. Instead, the Forest Service could be rendered impotent, as the Grazing Service had been previously. In this way, the powers in the mining and timber industries, which also had an interest in deregulation, might back the stockmen.