Rebellions are in the air. On Wednesday, a convoy of right-wing protesters tried to shut down Washington D.C. roadways. A larger Canadian trucker blockade protesting COVID-19 restrictions wreaked havoc in recent weeks. Anti-mask protests are spreading in school districts across the country. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Bans, Schools, & Power: False Majorities,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman looked at two extreme rebellions: the 1860 secession of South Carolina and the 1930s rise of American Nazi groups. Several more morally ambiguous uprisings swept the United States during the 1970s, including the “sagebrush rebellion,” a push by Western Americans to reclaim public lands from the federal government. This struggle—and the Republican Party’s attempts to harness the movement’s populist fervor—offers an intriguing case study of the formation of false majorities. 

On January 20th, 1981, the morning of Ronald Reagan’s first presidential inauguration, Wallace Stegner—a passionate environmentalist then widely dubbed the “Dean of Western Writers”—published an op-ed in The Washington Post entitled “Will Reagan Join the Raiders?” Writing in the same lyrical prose of his 1971 masterpiece Angle of Repose, Stegner sized up Reagan’s relationship to the Western states, and particularly the incoming president’s support for returning federal lands to Western state governments. 

Stegner animated the struggle between conservationists and believers in federal stewardship on one side–himself included–and pro-business forces that he claimed “plan turning the West’s resources over to corporate exploitation.” Stegner described the anti-government forces as “merely noisy and absurd and dominated by a myth of rugged individualism that never had a basis in fact.” 

The passionate writer painted the debate in stark terms: “Most westerners would not want the West sacrificed, even at a high price. Raiders characteristically have never cared and do not now. And it does look as if Reagan is riding with the posse.” 

The battle in which Stegner and Reagan found themselves in early 1981 emerged from an undeniable reality: the government owned a staggering amount of Western land. By the 1970s, 93.5% of all federal lands were in the eleven Western states and Alaska. The Bureau of Land Management, the military, the National Forest Service, and other federal agencies owned 81% of Nevada, 66% of Utah, and 64% of Idaho, and 53% of Oregon.  

Matters became more dramatic in 1976, when Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which made the handover of public lands to ranchers or businesspeople more difficult. And by decade’s end, high-profile military and governmental resource projects had pushed angry anti-government protestors to the edge. 

Conservation efforts quickly expanded; for example, the Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area in Idaho grew from 26,000 acres in 1971 to 539,000 acres in 1978. 

The governmental projects, however, weren’t just environmental. In 1979, President Carter approved the massive MX Missile Project, a $33 billion project for the construction and deployment of 200 high-tech missiles—each capable of carrying 10 nuclear warheads—in partially-underground “parking garages” connected by 10,000 miles of “racetrack” roadways in the Nevada and Utah deserts. 

A coalition of state legislators and local activists emerged to fight against MX, conservation areas, and the new protocols of the FLPMA. Norm Glaser, a 50-something Democratic state senator from Elko, Nevada, became a leading supporter of a statewide bill pledging to fight in the courts to wrest 50 million acres of land from federal control. The bill passed the state legislature and Governor Bob List signed it into law, even approving a yearly $250,000 war chest to lobby for further rollbacks of federal control. 

“We’re tired of being pistol-whipped by the bureaucrats and ambushed and dry-gulched by federal regulations,” Glaser told The Washington Post. “It is time to wrest the land from the perfidious absentee landlord who resides along the banks of the Potomac,” Glaser proclaimed to the Los Angeles Times.  

The fledgling political movement—dubbed the “Sagebrush Rebellion” after the region’s ubiquitous mountain plants—quickly caught on with ranchers. Many of these joiners had been battling with environmental groups since 1973, when the National Resources Defense Council spearheaded a massive lawsuit against the Department of the Interior to encourage more regulation on environmentally-harmful ranching practices. 

Nevada and Utah ranchers and fellow travelers began sporting orange and black buttons reading, “Welcome to the West. Property: U.S. Govt.” Similar tangible outbreaks of anti-government sentiment were cropping up across the West. When the Carter administration in 1978 set aside 56 million acres of land in Alaska for national monuments, angry protestors in Fairbanks burned Carter in effigy, while fishermen in the small village of Ketchikan threw another Carter dummy off the docks. The cover of the Fall 1980 edition of Utah Science magazine featured a man on horseback in Revolutionary-era garb alongside the headline, “Sagebrush Rebellion: Revolution Against a New Colonialism?” 

The Republican Party—sensing a potential opportunity—was granting the Sagebrush Rebellion some serious firepower. 

Young Republican Utah Senator Orrin Hatch was early to the party. In 1979, he introduced a bill piggybacking off the Nevada proposal that would have permitted all Western states to take title of federal lands. At a September 1979 meeting of the Western Conference of the Council of State Governments in Reno, Hatch argued that the rebellion was “destined to lead the Western states to the most dramatic development in our history toward entering the Union” and suggested that any Western Senator who voted down his proposal was “ignoring the will of the vast majority of the people.” 

Conservative icon and Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater joined up with Alaska Senator Ted Stevens to back the League for the Advancement of States Equal Rights (LASER), a well-funded pro-Sagebrush initiative. And Nevada Senator Paul Laxalt, a key figure in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign, kept a “Sagebrush Rebellion” bumper sticker on his Senate office door. 

In July 1980, presidential candidate Reagan appeared at a rally in Salt Lake City. “I happen to be one who cheers on and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion,” he told the crowd. “Count me in as a rebel.” Reagan also implied that vast federal control of the West violated founding principles: “It’s contrary to the basic law when the 13 Colonies first came into the Union.” 

In October, Reagan again expressed his support for Sagebrush during a campaign stop in Idaho Falls, pledging, “The next administration won’t treat the West as if it were not worthy of attention. The next administration will reflect the values and goals of the Sagebrush Rebellion. Indeed, we can turn the Sagebrush Rebellion into the Sagebrush Solution.”

Yet even as the movement went national, the rebels’ position did not, by most accounts, represent the majority. A 1979 poll by the Behavior Research Center found that only about 30% of residents in eight Western states supported seizure of federal lands. 

Nevada’s State Administrator of Public Lands, Jac R. Shaw, echoed these doubts and rang the alarm about predatory commercial development on potentially ceded federal lands. “Land is an issue that lends itself to a touch of demagoguery,” Shaw conceded. “But if it ever looked like the state was going to get that land, they’d [the developers] spring out of the desert like wildflowers. I just feel safer if the key’s back there in Washington.” 

In Stegner’s pre-inauguration essay, the novelist expressed incredulity at Reagan’s embrace of the movement: “Does he really back the secessionist position of the Sagebrush Rebellion and want to turn the public domain that belongs to all citizens of the country over to local governments dominated by precisely the rugged individualists who nearly ruined the land earlier?”

Reagan, however, wasn’t bluffing. Upon taking office, he boosted the proposals of James Watt, his controversial new Secretary of the Interior. Conservative commentator George Will called Watt, a veteran of a deregulation lobby funded by right-wing beer magnate Joseph Coors, the “Robespierre of the Sagebrush Rebellion.” In the first half of 1981, Watt’s crusade to—as he put—“undo 50 years of bad government” by pushing off-shore drilling in Northern California and environmentally-damaging Montanan gas exploration, alienated many Sagebrush Rebellion supporters by going too quickly in opening up Western lands. 

Watt made war with environmentalists until 1983, when his penchant for racially insensitive statements—comparing environmentalists to Nazis and mocking affirmative action by saying, “I have a Black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple” on a coal advisory committee—led to his resignation. By the time Watt left the Reagan administration, much of the fire had gone out of the Sagebrush Rebellion. 

40 years on, the same relationship between grassroots rebels and Washington Republicans is again bringing belligerent anti-government movements into halls of American political power. Heather Cox Richardson summed up how rebellious gripes explode into movements at the end of this week’s episode: “It doesn’t have to be real; it just has to get people angry enough that they are willing to invest their emotions in it. From there, it’s easier to radicalize them.” 

For more on the Sagebrush Rebellion, check out this 2016 Philip Bump primer in The Washington Post, or track down a copy of University of Wyoming Professor R. McGreggor Cawley’s 1993 Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics. And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.  

The Time Machine Archive 

Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: