FOR MANY or maybe even most Americans, reports that a rancher in Clark County, Nev., was at odds with Federal land bureaucrats, scores of Federal lawyers were litigating against him, and SWAT-garbed and heavily armed Federal law enforcement officers had surrounded his place might have come as a surprise. People might have been even more surprised, in the wake of this standoff, which ended short of deadly escalation thanks in part to negotiations by a local sheriff, to hear that more than 50 elected officials from nine Western states had gathered in Utah to discuss a state takeover of a significant portion of federally owned land in the American West, but Westerners--especially rural Westerners who make a living on the Federal lands that predominate beyond the 100th meridian, by logging, mining, ranching, or developing energy resources --were not surprised at all.
What has been most lacking in the reporting on these stories is the background of the disputes, and it should be stated up front, in all fairness, that the Obama Administration is not unique in pursuing policies anathema to Westerners. On that score, it simply has followed the examples of the Carter and Clinton administrations.
In the late 1970s, Pres. Jimmy Carter's "War on the West" spawned what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, which Ronald Reagan embraced during his campaign for president in 1980: "I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion," candidate Reagan proclaimed in a speech in Salt Lake City, Utah. "Count me in as a rebel."
The uprising was spurred by the fact that, more than any other region, the American West had been victimized by the environmental policies implemented--utterly regardless of their destructive economic and human consequences--during the previous two decades. Reagan had seen firsthand the transformation of the environmental movement from one of conservation and stewardship, in which the part played by human beings and technology was vital, to a movement in which humans and technology were understood to be enemies of nature. As articulated by Reagan, opposition to extreme environmentalism represented a return to true environmentalism. America's "environmental heritage" will not be jeopardized, he promised, while at the same time insisting that "we are going to reaffirm that the economic prosperity of our people is a fundamental part of our environment."
In terms of the public land issue, Reagan blamed "a tiny minority opposed to economic growth" for locking up Federal lands that hold "probably 70% of the potential oil in the United States," and he vowed to support the use of Federal lands to meet the U.S.'s energy, economic, and foreign policy needs. As former governor of California, he knew all too well that the Federal government owns one-third of the land that makes up the U.S., the vast majority of this being in the West. Federal...