How much is a rebellion worth? In the case of a prospective second Sagebrush Rebellion, we say it’s not worth very much.
It’s certainly not worth $30,000, the total amount of public funds allocated by Wyoming lawmakers to study an old and beaten idea: The transfer of federal lands to state control.
For a Legislature which often juggles budget dollar amounts in the millions and billions, $30,000 may not seem like a lot of money.
But how much should be spent on a bad idea?
The lawmakers’ Task Force on Transfer of Public Lands, led by Sen. Eli Bebout and Rep. David Miller, both Republicans from Riverton, revives a decades-old fight in Wyoming and the West.
The Sagebrush Rebellion that peaked in the 1970s and 1980s rekindled a longtime goal of Western states: Wresting control of federal lands and putting them under state control.
It’s not a revolutionary concept. There is little federal land in the East simply because the federal government largely granted away its land to the states in which it was found. That didn’t happen in the West, where state and private land remain islands in a federal sea.
The American West, including Wyoming, was quite different than the Midwest or East. Government settlement programs, such as the federal Homestead Act which granted 160 acres for farming, didn’t work well in the arid West.
As the conservation movement grew in the early part of the last century, the government increasingly sought to protect vast swaths of the West as preserves and created a bureaucracies to manage its land. That cemented federal control of its territory, control with goals that sometimes hasn’t meshed well with Western states or those who live in them.
It’s an old fight.
Here’s the thing: The West, including Wyoming, has lost that fight time and again. Its most recent iteration, the Sagebrush Rebellion, was defused by a Reagan Administration that hosted a number of rebels — including Ronald Reagan and his interior secretary, James Watt.
While that election’s results were celebrated by the sagebrush rebels, they didn’t get much of what they wanted. In fact, a federal initiative program — the Asset Management Program — aimed to sell off federal acreage the size of the state of Iowa but ended up only dealing out fewer than 30 square miles.
Put simply, the rebellion’s goals didn’t work out so well in practice. Much of the land in the West isn’t exactly desirable. It’s not suitable for farming and doesn’t hold mineral or other resources. But the rebels considered the fight necessary, a push back against what they saw as the federal government’s tightening grip on its land.
The Sagebrush Rebellion was always a cause in search of practical goals.
“A simple conclusion of the study may be for the federal government to allow [oversight] by Wyoming agencies, instead of the federal government agencies, much like we do on other issues,” task force co-chair Miller told the Star-Tribune.
That modest goal seems laudable, except for the quixotic notion of a group of Wyoming legislators telling the federal government how to do its business. Again, a failed notion from the start. Keep in mind the state already grasps chances to administer federal regulations, and does so for many environmental and workplace safety concerns.
Shannon Anderson, an attorney for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a agricultural and conservation group based in Sheridan, told the Star-Tribune similar bills have been debated in other Western states.
She’s correct. The Sagebrush Rebellion Act, as it’s known, is a piece of drop-in legislation offered to lawmakers by conservative policy groups who want to restart the war the West lost.
Essentially, Wyoming won’t be taking a new and fresh approach to the issue.
“It’s been well studied, it’s been well debated,” Anderson told the Star-Tribune. “We can’t make the federal government turn over its land to us. It’s not anything the state can do. It’s not worth spending the money to study.”
Anderson is entirely correct.
Some ideas are worth the money. This one isn’t worth a thin dime.