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Alone In The Wilderness
Bil Gilbert
October 03, 1983
As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West
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October 03, 1983

Alone In The Wilderness

As a result of his words, actions—and inaction—James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, has lost support, even in the West

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Interior officials have tried to explain away the widespread opposition to the Watt administration by saying that the opposition is, in fact, a fiction; that despite the best efforts of the hired guns, a majority of the grass-roots members of their organizations are backers of Watt. There is little hard evidence to support this theory and much that contradicts it. Beyond such direct indicators as the NWF and other polls, virtually all the organizations that have been most hostile to the Watt administration report that their membership rolls have increased and fund raising has been stimulated during the past two years—specifically because of dislike for Interior programs.

But why believe the word of the hired guns who run such organizations? I decided to take my own readings down at the grass roots, starting at a meeting in Reno last spring of National Wildlife Federation members from 11 Western states. There I talked to about 40 federation members, none of whom drew salaries from the organization. All had joined it because of their recreational interests or concerns about environmental policy, and all were men (there were very few women at the meeting). Their occupations were various, including educators, state and federal employees (though none from Interior), hunting guides, engineers, a miner, a farmer, a botanist, a timber cutter, a land-planning consultant, a cabinetmaker and a lawyer. Several interviewees volunteered that they voted Republican, and overall, I got the impression that the group was a bit to the conservative side of moderate.

Not one of these men was an outright supporter of Watt. A few said that some of his policies were reasonable, but that they distrusted his motives, disliked his preachy, vindictive manner and made it clear that they thought he was generally a disaster as Secretary of the Interior. The rest were adamant in their opposition to Watt, and so, they said, were the overwhelming majority of the members of their local chapters.

There were many specific local criticisms of Interior policies. But one issue, public lands, underlay all the others, and everyone interviewed voiced suspicions that the administration's real intent was to privatize—by sale, new leasing arrangements or regulatory trickery—substantial tracts. That those feelings should have been so strong and widely held isn't surprising, because more than half of the land in the 11 states represented at the meeting is owned by the Federal Government.

THE SAGEBRUSH REBELLION

In 1979 the Nevada legislature passed a resolution demanding that the Federal Government turn over all its properties in Nevada to the state government. This action was the high-water mark—the Pickett's charge—of the Sagebrush Rebellion. At the time, the rebels received considerable national attention, in part because they were exotics who lent themselves to publicity and punditry. Now the rebellion is pretty much a thing of the past, but the reasons for it and the people involved in it are still important to the general Western lands issue. Two of its proud members were Ronald Reagan and James Watt.

Technically the rebellion was a sort of rent strike, a protest by ranchers, miners and some of their sympathizers about how they were being harassed and humiliated by the Federal Government, from whom they leased lands. However, more than that it was a class fight, a dispute over the definition of public lands, what they should be used for and who ought to have a say in the matter. Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming was never really a Sagebrush Rebel, but many of his constituents were. He is a conservative but a pragmatic rather than ideological one, who talks more about what strikes him as common sense than about what is right and wrong.

Simpson thinks the Sagebrush movement was set off mostly by bureaucratic arrogance—the unresponsiveness of federal land managers, particularly those employed by the Bureau of Land Management. Says Simpson, "People were saying to the BLM, 'Now, look—you gave me a permit to drill a well and one to build an 18-foot-wide road to it. It's snowing like hell out there, and you send me a notice that I'm 20 inches off course and you're going to take away my permit. You son of a bitch.' And the BLM guy would say, That's right, because under CF-R-215 it says I should.' And there was no place that driller could appeal to get a real live human being to make a decision. That was the BLM, the most unresponsive agency in government. You could usually go to the Forest Service and get an answer from a human being, but, by God, from the BLM you got the greatest pile of hoorah you could ever imagine."

Furthermore, Simpson says that Westerners using public lands felt they were being harassed and humiliated by Eastern-based environmentalists. "I remember federal range users [sheep ranchers and cattlemen] in Worland, Wyoming," he says. "Their allotments [the number of animals the BLM allows to be grazed on a particular tract of leased public land] were cut back. What happened was that some bleep from an Eastern college came out and stuck a wire basket over a three-foot-square piece of ground and counted the blades of grass inside the cage. He comes back the next summer and says there are 15 fewer blades of grass and therefore your allotment will be cut. He tells this to some horny-handed son of the soil who has been trying to raise 100 sheep on the Bighorn Mountains. You can't imagine the richness of feeling that comes from that sort of thing."

While horny-handed son of the soil is a fine phrase, it suggests a populist character that many observers do not think the antifederal, antienvironmental movement had or has. The Sagebrush Rebellion wasn't created by and for 100-head-of-sheep men in the Bighorns, but rather by and for men who hire somebody else to run their 1,000 head of cattle on 50,000 acres of BLM land.

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