Sagebrush Rebellion Essay

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The sagebrush rebellion refers to a movement that gained momentum in the western United States where states sought to assert their individual rights over federal public land within their boundaries. The rebellion had its roots in historical events spanning four previous resistance movements in the west dating back to the 1880s, with each movement coalescing around natural resource issues. This resistance was also in opposition to the placement of land under federal jurisdiction following the passage of federal legislation and creation of federal agencies to manage public land. As the rebellion gained strength throughout the 1970s, it turned into a populist campaign for states’ rights united in opposition to federal land management policies.

The term specifically came into being in 1979 with the passage in the Nevada State Legislature of Assembly Bill 413, entitled the Sagebrush Rebellion Bill. The rebellion was particularly strong in Nevada, where 87 percent of all land was federally managed. The bill sought to create a review board and provide for state control of certain lands within the state boundaries under the administration of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. The bill was the result of previous failed attempts by the State of Nevada during the 1970s to receive federal land grants. Ultimately, 10 other states joined the rebellion, with four of them (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming) passing similar legislation. Western states felt that too much of their land was being placed under federal jurisdiction. Driven by the sheer size of the federal estate and angered by what they perceived as a land-grab of state land by the federal government, the western states sought to control the resource and recreational use of public lands that they deemed essential to their state economies. The rebel states claimed that federal land within their boundaries was rightfully theirs, and that they could better utilize the land through resource extraction.

In addition to actual legislation, the Sagebrush Rebellion represented a general attitude of frustration and hostility with federal management of land in western states. The “rebels,” representing various interest groups (including timber, grazing, mining, water, hunting, and fishing interests), believed that federal policies affecting the west were made without regard for conditions and concerns there. The western states felt that this treatment by the federal government would worsen, as the 1977 energy crisis indicated that the west could be called upon to satisfy national energy needs. Rebel states also believed that the environmental movement, which rebels saw as hostile to their interests, unduly influenced federal government policies. For this reason, the rebellion is sometimes characterized as an antienvironmental movement.

During the Sagebrush Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1980, President Ronald Reagan sent rebels a message saying that he would “… work toward a ‘sagebrush solution.’ ” With the appointment of James Watt as Interior Secretary in 1981, the rebellion felt they had the support in Washington that they needed to succeed. Watt was from Wyoming; one of the “rebel” states, and having a westerner in charge of the Department of the Interior seemed advantageous since this agency primarily dealt with the administration of western lands. However, the rebellion lost momentum when Reagan failed to push the cause and with Watt’s resignation in 1983, the rebellion was essentially dead in Washington. The main cause of the defeat of the Sagebrush Rebellion was the inability of states to establish the basic legal claim that the public domain truly belonged to the states. The Supremacy Clause (Article VI) of the U.S. Constitution made this legal case more difficult, stating that federal laws (and treaties) are the supreme law of the land, and that judges in every state are bound to those laws.


  1. McGreggor Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics (University Press of Kansas, 1993);
  2. William W. Coons, The Sagebrush Rebellion: Legitimate Assertion of States Rights or Retrograde Land Grab? (Vance Bibliographies, 1981);
  3. William L. Graf, Wilderness Preservation and the Sagebrush Rebellions (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1990).

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