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The Sagebrush Rebellion was a political movement centered on the use of federal lands in the western portions of the United States. The U.S. federal government owns roughly 60 percent of land in the 12 continental states west of or including the Rocky Mountains. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford signed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which brought the Sagebrush Rebellion to a head.
Resistance to governmental control of land was nothing new in the western states. Use of lands controlled by the National Forest Service (NFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is heavily restricted. In cases where land use is approved, expensive licensing is often required, and licensees must adhere to regulations and specific guidelines that many people find needlessly restrictive. Initial support for the Sagebrush Rebellion grew from resistance to grazing fees charged to ranchers, but miners and loggers also were affected.
Westerners felt that they were merely caretakers for the federal government and fought for greater control of local lands. Many felt that federal bureaucrats didn’t understand local issues and that local authorities would be better at managing resources and growing the economy. Ideally, the Sagebrush Rebellion attempted to bring federal land under state management or to allow purchase by the private sector.
In 1976, the Sagebrush Rebellion gained momentum when congress passed the FLPMA, which stated that most NFS and BLM land would never be released to state or private control. The bill was designed under the assumption that the economic benefits would prove too tempting to local authorities, and environmental concerns would be ignored in favor of fast cash. Although provisions were made to continue using resources for mining, logging, grazing and ranching, the legislation also included preservation measures and heavily restricted these activities.
Environmental regulations protecting endangered species reduced available land and resources. From 1977 to 1980, President Jimmy Carter set aside 37.8 million acres of federal land, previously available for commercial use, for national parks and protected reserves. These reserves also had an impact on the surrounding lands, such as interrupting irrigation and making previously productive farmland unusable.
Supporters of the Sagebrush Rebellion felt that their land was being stolen from them and resented the further loss of control. Some felt that Carter, who failed win a single one of the 12 continental western states during the presidential election, was punishing the entire region. Grassroots support sprung up across the West.
Until Ronald Reagan took office as president in 1981, the Sagebrush Rebellion continued to resist federal authority. Reagan eased tensions by appointing James Watt, a Sagebrush Rebellion leader, to his Cabinet as Secretary of the Interior. Although resistance to federal authority in land matters was at its peak during the late 1970s, this resentment did not fully heal and continued into the 21st century.
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