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Does The West Have A Death Wish?

July 2024
25min read

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.

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.”

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.

The Western states formed from these acquisitions are today called the public land states. At no time did they have title to any of the public lands within their borders, except for the territory granted to them by the federal government. Nor did they ever have a voice in the administration of these ” unappropriated and unreserved ” lands. A condition of stateship, in fact, was that the territorial governments renounce all claims to those lands not already given to them by the federal government. Wyoming’s state constitution, ratified in 1890, is typical: “The following article shall be irrevocable without the consent of the United States and the people of this state: The people inhabiting this state do agree and declare that they forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands lying within the boundaries thereof. ”

This is not to say that the United States did not frequently bestow lands upon the states. The country was then in the business of disposing of lands. Dispositions were made for schools, for roads, and for the laying of railroad tracks. Most important, after the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed, the land was either given or sold cheaply to homesteaders who promised to put the raw acres to the plow in return for the right of private ownership. The goal at one point was to distribute parcels of federal land to all who sought them for agricultural purposes. During the years of disposition, about 80 per cent of the public domain was given away. The plan foundered as more settlers crossed the hundredth meridian, that vital east-west demarcation signifying the place where less than twenty inches of rain falls during a year. The forests, which require at least thirty inches of annual rainfall, dwindled and yielded the way to thick grasses or else draped mountainsides at higher elevations farther west, where melting snow could provide them with sufficient moisture. Where rainfall accumulated to less than five inches a year, even the grasslands were doomed and surrendered to the deserts. Conventional methods of raising crops could only fail in these arid and semiarid plains, without large irrigation projects. So settlers, eager to re-establish a life similar to the one they had known near the humid Atlantic coast, merely passed through this open and empty region.

Not all were blind to the natural advantages of the plains, however. Zebulon Pike, during his exploration of the region around 1806, noted that “the inhabitants would find it most to their advantage to pay attention to the multiplication of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats, all of which they can raise in abundance, the earth producing spontaneously sufficient for their support, both winter and summer, by which means the herds might become immensely numerous.” By the mid-1800’s pioneers were beginning to discover for themselves the value of Pike’s observation. The story goes that some travelers were trapped on the high plains by the early onset of winter. They settled in until spring and regretfully turned their oxen and cattle loose to die. But when spring came, the livestock were recovered, fat and glossy, having been fed well on the bounteous grasses that protruded above the snow or that could be dug for with hooves. The sun-dried grasses that swayed like wheat remained nourishing all winter, as “protein cured on the stem.” It is said that based on this knowledge some people stayed right where they were or located next to rivers and set about raising cattle, which they sold to military posts and Indian reservations.

More important, however, was the overflow of cattle from Texas, where the Spanish had established ranching more than a century before. With the defeat of the South during the Civil War, the Texas operations began moving their herds over the plains to link up with the cities to the north and east. The burgeoning North was hungry for meat and had plenty of money to pay for it. From about 1866 to 1876 the cattle business spread over western Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. The physical basis of the industry was the public domain, with its abundance of free grass and where a man’s right to this grass depended on whether he claimed it and the water near it first. Within fifteen years the cattle industry became the power to be dealt with in the West. In 1875 the Buffalo Livestock Journal (Wyoming) declared that “cotton was once crowned King but grass is now. … If grass is King, then the Rocky Mountain Region is its throne and fortunate indeed are those who possess it.”

The cattle kingdom… formulated its own law, called the code of the West, and it did it largely upon extralegal grounds.”—Walter Prescott Webb

The operating expenses of cattle raising consisted of a corral, some cowboys, and a branding iron. The economics were as simple. A fully grown steer ready for market in 1883 brought between forty-five and sixty dollars. If sold to a booming mining camp, it could fetch one hundred dollars. The same animal at birth was worth about five dollars. For four years it had roamed the plains and grazed the free grass of the public domain. With hardly any expense to its owner, the steer became an element of great fortune. When land could be used so freely, there was little reason to buy it, and in those years, cattlemen bought less than one per cent of the land they used for their business. Stockmen’s groups at the time considered ownership of much land undemocratic, for it would create enormous estates, reminiscent of those established by European royalty. Better to leave it free and open. Better, at least, for a while.

There was hardly any deception about whose land was being used to feed the cattle. In 1879 a publication called the Rocky Mountain Husbandman stated that “it is admitted that every one of the 49,000,000 inhabitants of the United States owns an equal share of, or interest in, every spear of grass on the public domain, but few of them have any desire to take immediate possession. …” Obstacles such as Indians deterred them, “and they say, ‘Well, after all, I believe I shall not bother with mine just now, you may have it if you want it.’ ” But as tales of instant wealth spread and attracted more cattle outfits, an influx of speculators began to cause crowding. By law the homesteaders had first rights to the land, in parcels of 160 acres granted by the government’s General Land Office. Latecomers kept arriving, and they were left with the land that previous waves of pioneers had passed up because it lacked a dependable supply of water. The cattlemen, although better established, were the trespassers. Their requirements astounded the government and the people back East. Men would run their herds over territories the size of Massachusetts and Delaware combined, keeping a stranglehold on the creeks and rivers, controlling the land as though they owned it.

The cattle outfits grew larger and stronger and preferred to handle the encroachment of settlers in their own way rather than lobby for laws to protect their interests. They destroyed property, ran homesteaders off the land, and killed them and each other. In the late 1870’s ominous ads started appearing in the newspapers, warning newcomers to the cattle business that they would not be welcome in the area and would be ostracized at communal roundups. “The cattle kingdom,” wrote historian Walter Prescott Webb, “worked out its own means and methods of utilization; it formulated its own law, called the code of the West, and it did it largely upon extralegal grounds.” Laws were passed to ease the burden of the settler, but the lawmakers continued to misunderstand the limitations of the land and only made it easier for the stockmen to acquire illegally land intended for farming. And so their reputation as ruthless land stealers grew, confronted as they were, Webb wrote, “with a law on the one hand and with a necessity on the other.”

The newspapers of the day vented the stockman’s frustration. In 1884 the Cheyenne Daily Sun complained: “We occupy a country in which irrigation is a conceded necessity to agriculture. Ninetenths of the surface is totally unfit for the plow. The stockman utilizes it all. Displace him and his capital, and one to fifty years must pass before those plains can be made to produce the same taxable wealth in any other form.”

The ranges brimmed with animals during the boom years. Then came the catastrophic winter of 1887. Many cattle died, but the situation was only to get worse.

Years of drought followed. In 1893 from 50 to 75 per cent of the herds that had lived through cruel winters and parched summers starved or died of thirst. Carcasses were so thick on the land that a stone could be thrown from one to another, for miles. Most outfits went bankrupt. Those that survived could not depend on nature’s munificence. Ranchers started putting up hay to feed their animals through winters and through drought-ridden summers. The cattle boom was over, forever. But the mystique about the money that could be made, and the freedom the business afforded, survived. And for the big cattle outfits that recovered, the memories of the good years were always stronger than those of the bad. To be a cattleman, one rancher said recently, “You have to be a darned optimist, not a good businessman.” It was the optimists who controlled the industry and interpreted nature. If there was no rain this year, there would be the next, and the grass would be better then. And so it went.

Throughout world history, the temptation to overgraze flocks of goats, sheep, and cattle has been too great for most stockmen to ignore. Animals were fed until the grass was gone, and then they moved on. Many countries have been irreparably harmed by overgrazing practices where the climate is arid or semiarid. Central Spain, which was overrun by Merino sheep hundreds of years ago, the steppes of Asia, and the biblical lands were all permanently stripped of their vegetation by herds of domestic livestock whose numbers no doubt never reached those of the cattle and sheep that covered the Great Plains country. When the grass is gone, there is nothing left to hold the soil in place. Inches of topsoil, which have taken tens of thousands of years to make, are destroyed in mere generations. Rainstorms, infrequent but torrential, drive the soil into the instant rivers they create, where it is eventually deposited in the main water-flows at the rate of more than 6,000,000 tons a year, far more than would happen naturally. The result is often “water that is too thick to drink and earth that’s too thin to plow.”

Rainstorms, infrequent but torrential, drive the soil into instant rivers, creating “water that is too thick to drink and earth that’s too thin to plow.”

Grass roots and decaying blades form a mulch that act like a blotter. With grass in place the soil saturates more slowly during a rainstorm, and the excess water is released over the surface of the ground and to underground sources. In this way, explained one range expert, water is “walked downhill”; it won’t run off. Once grass is gone, it is difficult to reinstate. The ground is drier, and what soil remains is depleted, with no organic matter to enrich it. Sagebrush and other wood-stemmed bushes or even trees are introduced. These do not nourish cattle, nor do they hold the soil or water in place the way grass does. Sagebrush, for instance, needs two to four times more water than grass to survive and, through its long taproot, can reach farther down to draw what it needs, depriving the shallowrooted but more important vegetation of required moisture. In 1934 an ecologist by the name of F. E. Clements reported that his studies showed that sagebrush naturally belonged in 25 percent of the area it then covered. Everywhere else it was an intruder, a “gangster in the grass,” as one range specialist called it. In 1974 the Bureau of Land Management estimated that sagebrush covered more than 70,000,000 acres of rangeland in the West, or half the area used for grazing. In the Southwest excessive grazing has turned many places into desert, capable of supporting nothing but the toughest weeds. One study conducted at the University of Arizona in 1965 blamed cattle for the unconquerable invasion of mesquite. By browsing among the mesquite, cattle ingested seeds, which then passed through their intestinal tract ready to germinate once eliminated. “As many as 1,617 mesquite seeds have been found in a single cowchip,” the study stated. Thus mesquite spread as the cattle moved. The study concluded that, taken as a whole, the change in vegetation in parts of Arizona “constitutes a shift in the regional vegetation, of an order so striking that it might better be associated with the oscillations of the Pleistocene time than with the ‘stable’ present.” The shift occurred within eighty years, the researchers said, dating its start to the 1880’s, when cattle grazing was at its height in that state.

When the National Forest System was created under President Theodore Roosevelt in 1905, the timberlands it included were west of the hundredth meridian: east of that point the forests were all privately owned and had been logged or burned out years before. What there was left to conserve lay in the West, in the public domain. By 1908, near the end of Roosevelt’s term in office, 150,000,000 acres of forests had been set aside, primarily for the protection of the wood and watershed. The speed with which Roosevelt acted enraged the West, whose leaders hadn’t been consulted ahead of time about his plan. It was a primary example of the gradual change in land policy from government giveaway to government retention, in the name of all Americans. Within the national forests that Roosevelt set aside were some 80,000,000 acres of grazing lands, which were the grassy parks among the trees, and the lush stream bottoms of valleys with timbered slopes. Approximately 85 per cent of the West’s water is derived from 25 per cent of its land, chiefly that within the national forests, where most of the snows fall and the rivers start. Nearly all the key watershed lands are also primary grazing lands, creating a natural basis for conflict. For more than thirty years this land had been used freely by stockmen. It was a tough tradition to buck. The stockmen continued to use the national forests as they always had.

And then in 1906, Gifford Pinchot, the controversial chief forester, instituted a grazing fee and permit system. If lumbermen had to pay for the timber they cut on the national forests, so should stockmen have to pay for the forage of their sheep and cattle, Pinchot reasoned. Trees were no longer there for the taking; nor was the grass. The charge per head per month was low, but it nonetheless infuriated the stockmen. They tried legal means to withdraw authority from the Forest Service, but to no avail. Still, the Forest Service was generally pressured into nonenforcement of its own rules, and most instances of trespass were overlooked. After all, it was easy to believe the National Forest System had been created to protect trees, not grasses. The relationship between the two was not well understood. And the science of range management had not yet been born.

A world war, drought, and depression kept the Forest Service from taking any remedial steps to save the deteriorating ranges and watersheds. The service dreaded confrontation with powerful ranchers. What the grazing lands most needed was time to heal, which meant a reduction in the number of livestock allowed in the national forests and a shortening of the grazing season. But asking ranchers to cut back their herds was like asking them to throw part of their bank balance away, foresters thought, not realizing that cutbacks were more likely to pay off later.

“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. )

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.

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.”

Disillusionment and low morale brought the Forest Service to a serious crisis point. The most outspoken foresters in the trouble spots were transferred to other regions and to responsibilities having nothing to do with range management. The Denver Post called the transfers a “purge.”

The land-grab of the 1940’s failed in that there was no outright return of public land to private individuals. There was nothing to return, nor was there anybody in particular to return it to, after all, since the land had always been federally owned.

But the stockmen scored some farreaching victories. They had been heard in Washington, and their harriers had been removed. The land-grab succeeded in a subtle way, as the Sagebrush Rebellion might succeed. Private ownership of land, the grabbers realized then and the rebels realize now, is not essential. Control is. And that can be obtained by reducing the size and authority of those federal agencies that are so troublesome. Today the administration promises the West it will be a “good neighbor” and will not look over the fence or peer into the windows too closely.

If, as De Voto remarked, there is a beauty in historical continuity, then there is an ache also, for there is a dread of repeating what went before—when so much has been lost, when there is still so much to lose.

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