- 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
The new assault was headed by Congressman Frank A. Barrett, a Wyoming rancher who headed the Subcommittee on Public Lands of the House Committee on Public Lands. In the spring of 1947 Congressman Barrett scheduled hearings into Forest Service policies, to be held in seven Western states the following summer and fall. By the time the first hearing opened in Glasgow, Montana, on August 27,1947, it was clear to many in the West that Barrett was asking for support to “get” the Forest Service. A “Notice to Forest Permittees” appeared in stock publications, urging those with gripes against the service to come and give testimony. The hearings started mildly enough. Montana ranchers were generally satisfied with the Forest Service, which had successfully reduced grazing allotments in the state years before. It wasn’t until Barrett took the hearing, with its nine or so subcommittee members (half of whom were stockmen), to Rawlins that the pace began to quicken. At the hearing in his home state of Wyoming the audience was composed almost entirely of stockmen, who “yelled, stamped, [and] applauded” every time someone leveled a charge at the Forest Service. Stockmen with gripes were permitted to ramble on, while conservationists and Forest Service employees were cut short after a few minutes.”
“Pub’fcc lands are the only responsibility of the government besides atomic energy about which Congress could make an irretrievable mistake…s”
The subject of erosion and the Forest Service’s nasty preoccupation with it came up. “Erosion is a fundamental process of land sculpture that has been continued through the ages with general resultant benefit to mankind,” said J. Elmer Brock. “To it are attributed fertile valleys that are the mainstay of agricultural development. … Locally and temporarily floods and erosion cause inconvenience and expense. But it is an open question whether erosion on the remaining public domain exerts an influence mainly detrimental or mainly beneficial to human activities.” Congressman Barrett apparently agreed with Brock’s scientific assessment, for he later interrupted a Forest Service official’s testimony to launch into his own tirade. “It just doesn’t make sense to be saying that cattle and sheep on the Wind River range are kicking up all that dust and causing that silt,” he said. “It might sound all right in Harper’s or Colliers , but out here in the West it doesn’t make sense to people. Making charges against all these lambs and ewes and heifers and steers and bulls that are running around the hills here. Why blame it on the poor sheepherder and the little cowboy that’s trying to make a living around here on these hills? We’re sick of being kicked around. Maybe, one of these days we’ll do a little kicking ourselves, if we have to.” This from the supposedly impartial judge.
The 1940’s land-grab failed because there was no return of public land to private individuals. There was nothing to return… the land had always been federally owned.
From Rawlins the hearings moved to Grand Junction, where the audience of six hundred was so uncontrolled, and Barrett’s language so intemperate, that even the local pro-stockmen newspapers denounced him. The Denver Post referred to these sessions as “Stockman Barrett’s Wild West Show” in an editorial. A flier handed out to each subcommittee member at the beginning of the session explained that stockmen difficulties were caused by “prejudice against them by livestock ex-amateur cowboys and ex-amateur stockmen who washed out in the cadet state of their previous employment and turned to the Civil Service as a last resort for livelihood.” The flier called the Forest Service “a child of Congress, grown up without parental discipline or instruction, an arrogant, bigoted, tyrannical of f-spring. ”
The Barrett hearings were so obviously one-sided that they began to backfire. “From our viewpoint,” wrote the forester Earl Sandvig to a colleague in California, “the hearings have indirectly been of great help since they have unified all of the conservation organizations which, hitherto, had been supporting us but in no concerted way.” Hearings in Arizona were canceled because Barrett had been told that the conservationists there were ready for him. In California, Utah, and Nevada those in favor of Forest Service policies were out in force, turning the hearings into a rout. The subcommittee’s findings and recommendations were ignored and soundly denounced by the Secretary of Agriculture. “So violent was the purely Western opposition to the stockmen’s proposals,” wrote Wallace Stegner several years later, “that the chief of the Forest Service thought that the threat could not rise again for years to come. ”
He was wrong. Complaints, bitterness, and requests for transfer of the most watchful foresters continued to pour into the Forest Service, and morale eroded. Memos from headquarters began to warn foresters not to be too persistent in asking for cutbacks and stockman compliance. Finally the bureau suffered “internal surrender,” according to one displaced forester. “We say we just can’t get along and live with ourselves, and not try to do something,” he wrote glumly. “We used to be a fighting outfit when it came to rock-bottom principles.”