By every barometer of change, a storm is gathering over the Rockies. At a public- lands meeting in Denver, a Stetson-hatted, lizard-booted reincarnation of Patrick Henry excites a roomful of public-land ranchers and miners to a raucous, standing ovation. Flanked by fife and drum players in 1776 garb, the tall, lanky cowboy juts his weathered, angular chin out in defiance, points an accusing finger at an imagined, bigger-than-life federal bureaucrat and proudly proclaims, "This land is our land, not yours."
Twelve hundred miles to the west, county commissioners emboldened with visions of immortality test the waters of rebellion and independence in Nye County, Nevada. They put their John Hancocks on a document declaring that the federal lands in their county are by constitutional right the property of Nevada and by custom and culture the charge of local citizens. A thousand miles southeast in Catron County, New Mexico, a rabble-rousing rancher dares the Forest Service to take--as it has threatened to do--just one cow off his leased public lands. He is certain he can count on his neighbors if the agency is loco enough to try. But just in case, stuck in the back of his frayed and faded Levi jeans is a loaded .44-caliber Magnum.
The West is at war. For now, volleys of angry, bitter words are what shatter the silence of deserts, prairies, and canyons. But the line between words and bullets is fuzzy in a part of the country where emotions run as big and volatile as the land itself. It is only a matter of time before a nervous Forest Service ranger fires in self-defense against a crowd of enraged stockmen or an aggrieved cowboy takes the ultimate act of revenge in a moment of passion. War is here. The only question is, Who is the enemy? Who is the West really fighting?
High Noon on the Western Range
By all rights, it must be the federal government. It's as clear as right and wrong in the archetypal West. On one side are the outnumbered good guys, the white-hatted few and brave whose principles triumph over evil against impossible odds. On the other side are the bad guys, the black-hatted many and contemptible whose lack of principles is their chief undoing. It's High Noon, Shane, and Pale Rider rolled into one: the lone cowboy, the underdog, in all his mythic glory facing down an evil and all-powerful force--a federal establishment of faceless bureaucrats and oppressive laws and regulations. It's the kind of imagery that draws our sympathies and on which most of us were weaned. It's a picture that makes good, common sense.
Look at the numbers and consider the odds. The federal government, not the winsome cowboy, is the classic land monopolist of western folklore. Half the West is owned lock, stock, and barrel by the feds, and in states like Idaho, Utah, California, and Nevada, Uncle Sam is the majority landlord. Making matters worse, the feds--like the evil land barons of Hollywood legend--are gobbling up more western land by the tens of thousands of acres every year, often by ruthless means.
Look at resources. The grazing budgets alone of the two western land-managing agencies--the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management--are so large that they could buy out every public-land ranch in the West at fair market value over a period of four years. Look at the rules that govern public-land ranching. In the past quarter century alone, the pages of laws, regulations, and policies promulgated by Uncle Sam have come to dwarf the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Look at the numbers of people. The 28,000 men and women who ranch in the federal West are outnumbered by just the Forest Service and BLM employees who watchdog the people's land.
If there is a bigger-than-life western, it's got to be the public-land West. It's a tale as old as the republic, a story that recounts in a hundred ways the nation's epic struggles with big government. In the 1830s, John C. Calhoun fought to have federal lands ceded to the states in order to weaken the escalating power of the federal government. During the 1890s, western stockmen were up in arms over the federal government's decision (later reversed) to close forest reserves to grazing. Twenty years later, western governors, spurred on by regional anger over federally imposed grazing fees, demanded title to federal lands. At the cusp of the Great Depression, as ranchers and the Forest Service reached a standoff, President Hoover sought reconciliation by offering to transfer federal surface rights to the western states--an offer subsequently refused by western governors because it did not include mineral rights.
After World War II, western anger over federal domination seethed again, reaching the boiling point over federal grazing fees and culminating finally in a Senate bill to privatize the American West. The bill died a quiet death, though, largely because Congress bought off proponents of privatization with a 25-year federal spending spree to improve and restore federal rangelands for cattle and sheep. The Carter years brought the next showdown between ranchers and bureaucrats. Four years of mounting environmental regulation and expanded federal meddling in western affairs exploded in the celebrated Sagebrush Rebellion. By 1980, a half dozen western states were passing statutes that made claim to federal lands, and the West's 28,000 public-land ranchers were at the verge of armed conflict with the federal agencies. Reagan administration Interior Secretary James Watt, however, defused western resentment with a "good neighbor" policy aimed at resurrecting the status quo rather than privatizing the western range.
Sagebrush Rebellion II, affectionately called Son-of-Sage by friends and foes alike, is underway today, sparked not by Clinton's green brigades but by the environmental legacy of the Bush years--such as "no net loss of wetlands." Today, it is simply amplified by the much-hated programs of Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, including his ill-fated attempt to increase federal grazing fees. Like past rebellions, it is a regional response to federal domination of local interests. And like the battles waged since the 1890s, it is led by the West's aristocratic elite--the romantic and mythical cowboys and ranchers whose social, political, and economic standing make them heirs apparent to the plantation aristocracy that ruled the South from Jefferson to Lee.
They are the symbols of the West, the bearers of the region's landed wealth and the elder spokesmen of a day and age when cattle were still king. They are the last western heroes, the ears that listen for the faint whistle of the 12 o'clock train and the eyes that count the minutes and seconds to High Noon.
Cowboys in a Federal West
So much for what we would like to believe. It's inspiring on the movie screen, it makes awfully good reading, but it's simply not good history. The American West, and its perennial wars with the federal government, cannot be summed up in a good guy/bad guy melodrama; the facts are more complicated than myths and symbols would suggest. What is set forth by sagebrush rebels as a war of liberation from a domineering federal government may, in fact, be nothing more than a regional feud among warring siblings over which pampered child gets the federal spoils. Indeed, the West that we envision as wild and independent, as a refuge for the values that made America great, may, in truth, be nothing more than a federal creation--a legend bought and paid for with national taxpayer dollars.
To understand the West, we must understand how the West differs from the eastern half of the nation in both the origins of its settlement and the causes of its economic growth. Up until the Civil War, life in the Old West--the nonslave lands that lay at the western edges of the original northern and mid-Atlantic states--followed the rhythms set by market forces and the guideposts decreed by a fierce commitment to individual rights and private property. Settlement, land use, and productive enterprise were mostly the products of Adam Smith's invisible hand. Government meddling, particularly federal subsidies, was present, but only in the smallest of doses.
The New West, particularly the arid regions alongside and west of the Continental Divide, followed a different drummer. From the very start after the Civil War, the federal government orchestrated and controlled land settlement, land use, and productive enterprise in the Great American Desert. First, the U.S. cavalry created a clean slate in Lockean terms by removing Native Americans from lands intended for white settlers. (Native Americans in the Old West faced injustice too, but not the unabashed campaign of genocide made possible by a battle-hardened army.) Next, the cavalry built a network of military forts, many of which provided the nucleus of new markets to sustain marginal homesteads and struggling territorial governments. With the forts in place, settlers were then free to move westward, but with one caveat: They had to follow the scripts set by the Homestead Act of 1862 and all subsequent land settlement statutes.