The First Sagebrush Rebellion: Forest Reserves and States Rights
in Colorado and the West, 1891-1907
In Nevada in the summer of 1979 the Sagebrush Rebellion began its long sweep across the American West. Five years later, like a stream that overflows its banks, spends itself, recedes, and dies, it was gone. In its brief life it constituted a virtual war between the federal government and insurgent westerners over the question of federal ownership and regulation of western public lands. In a region where the government owns a landmass larger than western Europe, and where massive regulation goes hand in hand with ownership, the rebels of '79 simply came to believe that federal "landlordism" was destroying their economic lives. By eroding the economic development of western people, they also believed the government crippled the states in which they lived. Attacking "federal colonialism" and "boodle-passers" who had "taken charge of our assets," they insisted, like the Idaho Cattlemen's Association, that they had become "serfs" in their own homes, unable to control their "destiny" while, as one said, "Washington controls the land." As Governor Ed Herschler of Wyoming expressed it, "the system is badly out of kilter. Federal encroachments on state and local governments are at an all-time high."
From the beginning, the heart of the rebellion was the belief that excessive federal control and regulation of the western public domain stripped people and states of their rightsrights to graze cattle on the public domain, rights to mine it, rights to generate tax base from it, rights, echoed Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, to control their own "destiny." To reverse the trend, to regain lost "rights," the Sagebrush Rebellion attempted two things: in the short run, improved, "fairer" federal management of the public domain, and in the long run, cession of federal lands to the states in which they lay. In the end, it got neither; the question of rights remained as unresolved as before, and the rebellion ultimately flared out and died. In its brief life, however, it stunned all who witnessed it, and it set all its observers to wondering where it had come from.
In fact, it came from the past. It was not the first Sagebrush Rebellion, it was the seconda distant echo of an earlier conflict that crisscrossed the West in the 1890s.
In 1979 it was as if an old script had been found, dusted off, and transported into the present for another reading. On one side, once again, was the West, and on the other the federal government. In the middle were the familiar old questions about land, rights, and power. In 1979 westerns spoke of an excess of federal sovereignty in their midst, mostly on and around the land, and a hundred years earlier they said the same thing. In 1979 they warred with the government to correct the problem, and in the 1890s they did the same thing. Ten decades passed between the two rebellions and nothing was learned and nothing changedproving, if nothing else, the relentless redundancy of history and the inability of people to profit from lessons before them.
In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, America witnessed one of the greatest domestic upheavals in its history. The so called "conservation movement" triggered the greatest sectional conflict the nation had seen since the Civil War, and one of the greatest it had experienced in 200 years. Some called it the "silent" revolution, but it was, in fact, not silent at all. It was deep, angry, often violent, and frighteningly divisive. And it left scarsas the second Sagebrush Rebellion later provedthat have not healed today.
The genesis of the conservation conflict, of course, is well-documented. Through out most of America's life, as the "East" moved steadily west, the nation's attitude toward its timbered environment was simplistic and lethal. Clinging to the belief that the land existed for exploitation and no other reason, the mythology that the rich bounty of the West had been purposely set aside by God for the use of man, pioneers cut and slashed their way across the country with abandon. The evangels of the new age "civilized," to be sure. But in the process they also annihilated some of the most magnificent forests on the continent. Only in the last years of the Gilded Age, with the end of the century in sight, did the process slow. And only when it did, and America caught its breath, did its people begin to see what had happened: the virtual looting of the "Garden of the World." In the early 1890s, prodded by Frederick Jackson Turner's pronouncement that the frontier had "ended," many Americans, especially Easterners, concluded that the time had come to reassess the nation's great developmental ethic. So they did. And out of their fear that what had happened in the past would continue, without counteraction, to happen in the future, they launched the conservation movement. Their first target, not surprisingly, was the Great Forest.
Congressional passage of the Creative, or General Revision, or Forest Reserve, Act in 1891 began federal attempts to save the vanishing timberlands of the western public domain. The effect of the new policy on the West was profound. Almost immediately it changed it physically by constricting growth patterns, channeling growth away from public lands for the first time in American history and forcing it elsewhere. It changed it economically by impacting mining, farming, and stockraising, by locking up taxable land and stunting the growth of state revenues. It changed it politically by setting Democrats against Republicans with a particular new fury. But, most of all, it deepened an already broad political gulf that existed between the federal government and sovereign western states, between the "West" and the "East," and made the conservation issue, as much as anything else, a question of "rights"the rights of western people as opposed to those of the East, and the rights of western states as opposed to those of the federal government.
In the 1890s, three events triggered the controversy: the Creative Act of 1891, Grover Cleveland's 1897 "Midnight Reserves," and the so-called Organic Act of the same year. Together they strung a virtual tripwire for protest all across the West, but nowhere was the protest longer, uglier, or more significant than in Colorado.
For several days the passage of the Creative Act caused little movement in Colorado. There, as everywhere in the West, where the new law was little known and less understood, homesteaders, miners, and small cattlemen continued to conduct business as usual on the public domain. But as the distant abstractions of the act slowly translated into realityas the region's first forest reserves were carved out of the land on which they livedthe pioneers' world quickly changed. So did their attitude, which swung from unconcern to anger overnight. In Colorado the first flashpoint for protest was the two-million-acre White River Timber Land Reserve created by Benjamin Harrison across the White River Plateau on October 16, 1891. But within a year, by Christmas 1892, with Harrison's creation of the Pikes Peak, Plum Creek, South Platte, and Battlement Mesa reserves, controversy had spread across virtually all of central Colorado. Initial protest was predictably inchoate; then, as later, ignorant pioneers were confused about the law itself and inarticulate in expressing themselves against it. Even so, however, a central theme quickly developed among them; the savaging of the region's rights by the federal government. As a White River lawyer asked a crowed of homesteaders one autumn evening in Glenwood Springs, "is it fair to the people who have come out here to upbuild the country and their own lives to have, after years of earnest endeavor, someone take these resources from us?"
For two years, from the hard country along the White to the Grand Valley below, in homesteader and cattlemen's meetings, and in the nearly rabid editorials of the local press, this question was asked again and again. Arguing against the withdrawals, for example, the angry Meeker Herald urged its citizens to "arise in your might and protest this damnable outrage," to fight "that government outfit" that had no right to "drive you from the homes that you have acquired by years of toil." Before a packed house in the Denver Chamber of Commerce Building one October evening, Bear Creek cattleman H. H. Eddy denounced federal policy as a tyranny "not equalled since the days of William the Conqueror." And countless othersthe emerging theme of "rights" always foremost among themsaid the same. But it did no good. The protests failed. Other than creating a straw man with which to do battlea distant federal monolith with "esthetic Eastern people" behind it, ready to "plaster the West with reserves that would retard and cripple the hardy pioneers"insurgent Coloradans might as well have shouted to the wind. By 1893 Harrison's five Colorado reserves (and ten more in other western states) stood essentially unchallenged.
In the fall of 1893 the growing fight over reserves spread from the backwoods of the West to the floors of Congress. There, for the next three years, debate over the so-called McRae Billthe conservationists' master plan to add an administrative component to the Creative Act (which had effectively "locked up" public timber lands and literally left them to burn)allowed Westerners a second arena in which to voice their rage.
For the first time the states' right broadsides of 1891 and 1892 broke down into specifics. At least three themes began to emerge: fear that reserve resources would be siphoned off by eastern business, to the detriment of local settlers; fear that land lost to the states for disposal would impair their tax bases; and anger at the fact that Westerners were denied the same access to abundance and equality that had been accorded their fathers on earlier frontiers. Colorado's congressional delegation, for example, opposed the bill's stipulation that "merchantable" timber be sold to the highest bidder; its belief was that an "unfriendly" Interior Department would sell primarily to eastern timber combines instead of local settlers with little money and less influence. "Now comes the average Eastern congressman," said the Rocky Mountain News, "full of ignorance, and seeing the opportunity to make a dollar or two by the sale of timber proposes to do damage beyond estimate." The "tax base" question was equally controversial. As one Coloradan argued, the state's Rio Blanco County, home of the White River Reserve, was only three years old, and others were not much older than it; while forest protection was inherently good, forest lock-ups cost them all dearly in "revenue, pleasure, and liberty." If withdrawals continued in the future as they had in the past, so the argument ran, states would lose land sales, tax revenue would continue to shrink, and services would disappear. It was an argument with increasing frequency in Colorado in the middle 90s.
The McRae Bill had several incarnations between 1893 and its final death in 1896, and Coloradans opposed them all. But any celebrations they might have held were short-circuited by Cleveland's 1897 withdrawals21 million acres of timberland from Wyoming to Washington. Although the reserves did not directly affect Colorado, the "principle" of their withdrawal did. In this case what galled insurgents was the method by which the action had been taken: attacking Washington with renewed anger, they and others everywhere charged that the central issue was the "rights" of the affected states in the entire process. They maintained, first (and primarily), that the territories had been withdrawn at the request of eastern "theorists, enthusiasts, and cranks"Cleveland's six-man "National Forestry Commission"who had never actually seen the land in question, and authorized by an eastern president angry at the West for opposing his presidential candidacy in 1892. They maintained, second, that, spurning the age-old practice of advise and consent, he had not consulted western congressmen in advance of his action, nor did he advise them of it later. The trouble with Cleveland, said the Denver Republican, "is that he is imbued with the idea that the people of the West are ignorant." The result was the complete loss of "individual rights and the rights of the communities."
In April 1897, after four years of effort, congressional insurgents finally forced a showdown on the reserve issue. In a passionate three-month debate over South Dakota Senator Pettigrew's essential antiforestry amendment to the year's Sundry Civil Bill, Coloradans led the pack in its support. In a debate that broke sharply along East-West lines, they argued, with Pettigrew, that the Cleveland withdrawals should be suspended for at least one year, that reserved areas should be resurveyed and nontimbered lands eliminated from them, and that no future reserves should be established except to protect the forests within the reserve, establish favorable conditions of waterflow, or to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use of citizens of the United States. They also agreed that the free use of timber should be granted all "bona fide" local settlers, and (to their later chagrin) that the secretary of interior be given the power to make future rules and regulations for the reserves.
Throughout the debate Coloradans focused on an increasingly familiar theme; eastern-federal "paternalism," sectional politico-economic leverage, and the assertion of one region's rights over another's. Congressman John Bell of Montrose, near Battlement Mesa, insisted that neither he nor his constituents opposed legitimate "conservation;" what they opposed was the federal brand of conservation that, on the Battlement, for example, took in vast amounts of nontimbered agricultural, pastoral, and mining lands along with timber stands, leaving local settlers with nothing. "It is of this injustice," he said, "this indiscriminate setting aside of reservations that the people of my district complain." John Shafroth of Denver, however, painted protest with broader strokes. Focusing on eastern political and economic interests that he believed had created the reserve policy for their own benefit, he said that "it is most brazen for conservationists to tell us that they desire to protect us against ourselves. This proffered guardianship over western interests we most earnestly protest against. You may have the power, but it is not right." On June 4, 1897, William McKinley signed the Sundry Civil Bill and the "Pettigrew Amendment" with it. The so-called Organic Act of 1897, embodying all of Pettigrew's original goals, appeared to be a victory on the insurgent West. Shafroth, Bell, and their colleague apparently had their point.
In a game of highest stakes, though, the government held the ace. And in late June 1897, with the establishment of the reserves' first regulations, it played it.
On paper, at least, the new regulations appeared to be a radical departure from the government's past forestry policy of reserve-and-abandon. On paper, at least, the forest reservations now were officially unlocked for the first time in six years and opened to local settlers. Mineral prospecting, livestock pasturing (except for sheep), and the free use of water and timber for the legitimate purposes of settlers living in or near the reserves were all allowed. But from the start a gulf developed between perception and realitybetween what the regulations promised and what they actually delivered. The Organic Act clearly held that the reserves now were open, and from 1897 on it was clearly the federal perception that they were; in Colorado, along the rim of Battlement, in the valley of the Yampa, along Plum Creek, from Gunnison to Rifle to Meeker, the reality, to the settlers, was that they still were not.
Complaints began immediately, and they never stopped. Their primary focus was loss of pasture and timber access. Permits for timber cutting, they said, took months to acquire, and those wanting timber had to submit petitions citing the precise diameter of the trees in question, the number of trees, per acre, whether the timber had been killed by fire or disease, whether or not the trees had attained their full growth, how their cutting would improve the forest in general, and whether or not their removal would impair the overall objectives of the reserve. Then they had to submit to inspection by government men largely unfamiliar with the local forest terrain, and endure months of delay in Washington. Even they could be, and often were, denied. The net result was that homesteaders found it virtually impossible to build cabins and fencing in the small mountain meadows in which they lived. Prospectors suffered for the same reason: lack of timber for sluicing and the shoring of deep mines made it nearly impossible for them to hunt for mineral. For stockmen, permits for cattle grazing were difficult to obtain and more difficult to keep, and for sheepmen, of course, they were impossible. For years the government insisted that the charges were untrue, the reserves were open. But the widening gap between what it promised and what local settlers thought they received quickly ignited a new round in the conservation wars.
Still trying to define their position on the reserves, Colorado pioneers continued to argue both for their own individual "rights" in a system they now considered permanently turned against them, and for those of the "state" that supposedly shielded them. After 1897, refining old themes into new, they essentially argued three things: that the reserves had been created by eastern men with no knowledge of the West, that reserve rules formulated from the Organic Act were written by eastern men with no interest in the West, that the reservations were protected by eastern men ("timber agents" and federal "rangers") who had no sympathy for the Westand that the entire process had led to a wholesale breaching of the rights of western citizens and states.
It enraged them, for example, that forest reserves had been created by largely eastern Congress with no land of its own to lose to the system. It angered them more that by 1906 the state's eighteen reserves (12 million acres of land) had been authorized by two men, one from Indiana, one of new New York, one (Harrison) who never set foot in Colorado in his life, and the other (Theodore Roosevelt) who barely did. Worse, to them, was the fact that the withdrawals were based on information furnished largely by eastern "conservationists" who never saw the West either. To upcountry pioneers it was a little wonder that the reserves included so many millions of acres of nonforested lands with them (and, once included, rarely eliminated); from Cleveland's Forestry Commission, which viewed fragments of the West from the luxury of a fast-travelling Pullman car before recommending the withdrawal of 21 million acres of land, to the operatives of Theodore Roosevelt, who performed exactly the same way, the government's approach to western withdrawals was cavalier in every way. This was why the West saw no justice in the application of conservation in its midst. Expressing, again, the theme of lost rights, one White River rancher speculated that "if that great (western) domain passes to the general government, we people of the West will not be considered. The capital of the East will set the laws and we will follow them." By 1897, in fact, many would have argued that the process had already started.
If the creation of the reserves was an issue in the high country, the daily regulations that governed them was an even bigger one. Attacking the General Land Office and Forest Service bureaucrats' who wrote the laws, insurgents again insisted that their rights had been lost in the process. Their chargeby now a familiar onewas that the new regulators were uniformly eastern men who knew nothing of the West and its conditions, who did not care, and who promulgated ignorant regulations that crippled local western economies. Congressman Herschel Hogg blasted them as "goggle-eyed, bandy-legged dudes from the East" and "sad-eyed, absent-minded professors and bugologists." Senator Henry Teller, who said that Roosevelt knew "no more about conditions in the West than a woodchuck," dismissed the bureaucrats as "distant dictators with only a theoretical knowledge of the West"men "who had absolutely no acquaintance with the subject, who were too indolent to go over the country and examine its geography, who simply sat in their offices and made the laws, doing the utmost injustice to the people." Even Gifford Pinchot agreed that "the abysmal ignorance of the Washington office about conditions was outrageous." In other words, in this whole process, asked the West, when every word on every page of every regulation affected the very existence of people on the ground, where were citizen rights? And where, again, were the rights of the protector states?
To Westerners, the points at which "rights" seemed to be most directly abrogated was the point at which federal agents actually applied the regulations to specific reserves. It was here, on a summer afternoon, perhaps in a wilderness clearing, in a timber stand, on a fast-moving stream, where government actually met settler face to face, and where reality and the appearance of reality most clearly diverged.
Organic Act or not, insurgent pioneers insisted that federal agents deliberately impeded their access to reserves and reserve resources. They routinely denied grazing permits. They delayed and denied timber cutting permits. They hamstrung prospecting. And they did it all with a sense of hostility, even malice. The problem, again, said Westerners, was the fact that early "timber agents" were virtually all Easterners and either spoilsmen or appointees of spoilsmenwatchmakers, bookkeepers, veterinarians, saloon operators, protegees of eastern party bosseswhose primary goal was personal gain and not forest protection. As an angry Colorado Senator Edward Wolcott stated it, "they tumble all over each other in the western states, broken-down politicians from the Eastern states. They are not fit to stay at home so they are unloaded on the West. These people are worse than any timber thieves the East can imagine."
In time, of course, the GLO's timber agents gave way to the rangers of the United States Forest Service. But in the insurgent mind the evils of ignorance and corruption were only replaced by the worse evil of zealotry. To Gifford Pinchot, his men were passionate, almost evangelical, but only in pursuit of the public good. To Westerners, however, who commonly depicted them as whip-cracking "cossacks," the new rangers were simply fanatics carrying out a fanatical policy. As the Leadville Press bitterly editorialized, ranger law had locked up the reserves even more tightly than before, and left westerners "buncoed, robbed, and treated like serfs of English landlords." The Eagle County Blade wrote that "the fellows who spilled tea in Boston Harbor were not the only ones who had a righteous cause for revolution." Speaking specifically of ranger rule, a central Colorado cattleman added that "if your ancestors had come to America with mine, if as many of them had fought battles for freedom from King George, if you had breathed the spirit of liberty for thirty years on Colorado mountain tops, you would hate it as I do."
In the decade after the passage of the Organic Act, insurgents increasingly converted rhetoric to action. And at the heart of the action was still the question of rights.
Of all the insurgent groups, the most active was small cattlemen who fought for years against what they insistently called an "absentee landlord system" that made Coloradans "tenants of the federal government." In hundreds of local and regional meetings, especially in the early 1900s, they put pressure on the government to excise rangelands from the reserves and facilitate the granting of grazing permits. They fought the transfer of the reserves from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture, arguing that it would only increase the influence of men from "some codfish district of Massachusetts" who know "no more about western conditions than a Filipino does about Latin." At Public Lands Commission hearings in Denver in 1904, they fought federal leasing proposals and the question of grazing taxes, arguing that "Uncle Sam has been paid a thousandfold already for the land by the blood and bones" of cattlemen and others. In the meantime they also created a condition of anarchy on the states back ranges, contesting federal laws whenever they could and forcing rangers to arm themselves and maintain the law at gunpoint.
Behind the cattlemen and other high country settlers stood the state's political establishment, which expanded an almost manic energy in its efforts to roll back conservation on all levels. In the ten years after 1897 Colorado's governors, legislators, and congressmen, almost without exception fought what Teller acidly called "the fostering and kindly hand of the national government" and emphatically agreed with Teller that "we want it taken off."
In Congress, no state in the West produced a more rabidly anticonservation contingent in the conservation era than Colorado. Whether fighting the McRae Bill, the hostile application of reserve regulations, or supporting passage of the "Fulton Amendment" to the 1907 Agricultural Appropriations Act (mandating congressional approval for all future national forests), its relentless negativism rested on a single, inflexible premise: that in conservation matters the federal government had usurped the rights of the western states and the citizens who lived in them. When Hogg said that "I do not think in any area of government there has been such a reckless exercise of power" as conservation and when he raked the "forest crank" and "dreamer" responsible, he reflected the attitudes of a generation of colleagues, Democrat and Republican alike.
At the state level Colorado produced a stable of intensely anticonservation states rights governors who stirred up antigovernment sentiment at regional and national governors' conferences for fifteen years. Charles Thomas spoke routinely about federal "abuses of power." John Shafroth, who moved from Congress to the Colorado statehouse, maintained that "serious wrongs" had been inflicted by the government to the extent that back country pioneers had become virtual "criminals" on their own land. Pueblo Democrat Alva Adams launched a campaign to force federal cession of public domain lands to the states in which they lay. "Such a change of control," he said, would "give the state home rule over its entire territory and exempt every citizens of Colorado from the liability of being a trespasser" in his own region. "Such a transfer," he concluded, would also "promote the dignity of the state and advance the welfare of the people." Cession, of course, never happened, but the idea gained enough advocacy Westwide to create serious federal concern. Not insignificantly, too, it provided a precedent for the second "Sagebrush Rebellion" nearly a century later.
A few steps from the governor's office the Colorado state legislature besieged Washington with a decade's worth of petitions and memorials, all of them arguing that the state's sovereignty had been destroyed by federal conservation initiatives. In 1907, in fact, fearful that Colorado was sinking into a quasi-civil war with the government over the issue, it was the legislature's passage of such a memorial that ultimately brought the first conservation erathe first Sagebrush Rebellionto an end. "Assuming all the rights of a private landowner," read the memorial, the government had "undertaken the active administration of the lands composing national forests, utilizing them for the benefit of the government" at the expense of the state. By withdrawing fully one quarter of Colorado from entry, disregarding its "implied obligations to the state in the process," by "developing its resources for the benefit of the general government" and "engaging in business in competition with our citizens," the government was guilty of nothing less than "usurping the rights of the state and its citizens." To remedy the wrong, the legislature called for a "public lands convention" to be held in Denver later that year. It was the legislators' hope that at the meeting the government would be pressured either to defend and make sense of its policy, modify it to meet western needs, or abandon it forever.
The convention's basic objectives were clearly reflected in questions posed by its program committee. Did the federal government possess "the constitutional right to hold the public lands within the borders of new states in perpetual ownership and under municipal sovereignty without the consent of the state?" When the general government derived revenue from the reservationsthrough fees and resource saleswas such action in the interests of the states," or did it turn government into a profit-taking landlord? Did the whole program, in fact, "retard the settlement and development" of the American West and place it in an inferior political and economic position with regard to other regions and older states? Insurgents, of course, believed they knew the answers. With regard to what they saw as sixteen years of "landlordism, exploitation, special privilege, and carpetbag government"what Teller called the government's "Russia policy for the West"all that remained was vindication.
But, of course, it never came. For three days in June, federal officers sent to Denver by Roosevelt faced down insurgents from all over the West. When it was over the West knew the worst: federal policies were legal, they were immutable, and they would be enforced. In three days the president suffocated the insurgent movement, essentially forever, and ended a decade of disorder in its tracks.
From the moment the gavel fell in Denver, the central issue of the convention was the central issue of the conservation wars: state and individual rights. From the stage of the Broadway Theater, before a crowd of hundreds, western speaker after speaker spoke of the "outrages" of sixteen years. The litany by now was familiar. The government "usurped" land that belonged to the West. In the process it violated the rights of pioneers who relied on the land for survival. And it made it impossible for the states to grow. To the bitter end Teller insisted that "the government does not have the right to seize the land," and fellow senator Thomas Patterson said that "we do not want more than a fifth of our state taken from the people and turned into a federal preserve." Speakers from every state in the West repeatedly agreed. But it meant nothing, not to Roosevelt and not to the other architects of conservation. It was an old song, often sung, and by 1908 it had simply grown too old.
In the final hours of the convention, Gifford Pinchot confronted his enemies for the last time. He told them clearly, emphatically, that the government was right, that it would not back down, then he walked away, leaving them mute. The insurgents never recovered. In the next few days they drifted slowly back to the mining camps and summer range from which they had come, and for all intents and purposes they were not heard from again. Over the next few years the cry of "states' rights" occasionally rang down from the high country, but it quickly died. The first Sagebrush Rebellion was over. And few believed it would ever come again.
Given all this, then, what exactly was "states rights" in Colorado? What did the doctrine mean to those who invoked it? When pioneers attacked the federal government and eastern policy makers on conservation issues, what, precisely, were they trying to say?
In general, of course, "states rights" was several things in one, not one thing alone, and for all its political overtones, its roots were decidedly economic. Put another way, multiple issues, political in spirit but economic in origin, made up the doctrine, and it was under that banner that Colorado arranged and acted on its many angers.
Four central themes, all interconnected, finally underpinned the states rights argument: first, what was commonly referred to in the western press as "laissez faire"the pioneers' belief in the fundamental right of American citizens to earn a living off the land; second the western idea of "mission"; the insurgent notion of "equal footing" (an idea that resonated through the Sagebrush Rebellion as well as the first); and fourth, the ancient charge of "colonialism."
The first theme was clear and self-explanatory, and it was present in every statement the insurgents made. Westward-moving pioneers believed passionately that they had the right to convert western lands, especially timberlands, to their own personal use for the purpose of economic survival. Immersed in the spirit of late nineteenth century laissez faire capitalism and mindful of the fact that their fathers and their father's fathers had made living off the land with no governments restricting them, they simply asserted the same "rights" as those before them had. Forest reserves, to them, abridged basic rights by denying them access to historically "public" resources. Cordoned-off watersheds, for example, meant less (if any) timber for homes or fencing. Rules and regulations meant fewer grazing pastures and patented mines. Decreased enterprise, then, meant decreased income, and decreased income negated all the individual dreams that fueled the westward movement in the first place.
A second part of the states rights argumentthat meshed perfectly with the firstwas the old American idea of mission. With regard to it, Coloradans worked a very simple equation: as God's children in a new world, they had a mission (what earlier generations would have called "Manifest Destiny"); the mission was to "civilize;" "civilization," by definition was the creation of viable new governments (states), strong economic institutions (farms, mines, ranches, ancillary businesses), and stable societies in areas (like Colorado) where they did not exist before; and the western landscape (including the forest) was the stage on which it all was to be carried out. The problem was, however, the government demolished the stage. When it created the forest reserve system, withdrew land from entry, and established rules and regulations for its future useno matter how well-intentioned it may have beenit created a massive net effect for the West. Settlement was stunted in and around the reserves, the use of the land itself was restricted, and because of the cavalier approach to withdrawals by eastern policy makers who had no familiarity with the land, huge amounts of nonforested territory were withdrawn to begin with. In the end, then, one thing was clear to an angry West: on and near the reserves, at least, viable governments, strong economic institutions, and stable societies simply did not develop. "Civilization" was stillborn. The great mythic "mission" had failed.
What was not clear to the West in this matter was why the federal government had suddenly changed the rules of the land disposal game to begin with. It was the unshakable impression of the West, insurgent or otherwise, that the whole intent of the Founding Fathers in creating the public domain in the first place had been to hold it in trust only so long as it took to dispose of it to individual ownership. Moreover, it had been on the assumption that the lands would always be open to settlement that western states had relinquished claims to public lands within their borders as conditions of statehood. In other words, the federal role in the West, said its people, was temporary custodian, not permanent landlordand it had been so for over a century. The advent of reservations and regulations, then constituted, at very least, a breach of faith. If the reserve situation was what it seemed to bea calculated departure from a century of rapid disposal and settlement and the beginning of a generation of revenue-generating landlordismit was, said Henry Teller, "the most extraordinary proposition ever presented to an Anglo-Saxon, self-governing people." And it threatened to reduce them to the level of "servile peons."
It must also be remembered, at least in passing, that the whole withdraw-conserve process hit the West at a particularly bad time, a fact that exacerbated the entire conservation conflict. In 1891, when the Creative Act was passed, the cattle kingdom was in decline all across the West. Within two years the great silver frontier disintegrated. Back-country agriculture, like its downstream cousin (for which the forest reserves were created in the first place), stumbled throughout the entire period. At any other time the region may have been better able to confront the "failure" of laissez faire and mission and to absorb the shock of the new disposal system. But at the turn of the century, with the frontier "closing" and depression hemming them in from all sides, pioneer settlers equated shrinking land access with shrinking opportunity, and shrinking opportunity with economic destruction. Adopting, out of desperation, a "last stand" mentality that permitted them no flexibility, they mourned more keenly than ever their lost rights.
Above all, however, what galled Westerners was the belief that the kinds of restrictions placed on them had never been placed on the East. On earlier, more easterly frontiers, they argued, free men working free land had carved great personal fortunes out of them, as was their right. And in the process they had built powerful sovereign states around them. In Illinois and Pennsylvania and points between pioneers had transformed the Great Forest into the ever-elusive "civilization," and they had done so at great personal and regional profit. Then they refused the West the same opportunity. "After their states have been settled," said Thomas Patterson, "after their resources have been developed, after all this they start a (conservation) movement intended to cripple the mountain states and shut them out of the race for prosperity on equal terms with the other states."
The result was a sense of betrayal that existed everywhere. As one embittered insurgent said, "I think it is with considerable effrontery that a man comes to a western state after having gotten the benefit of the liberal policy of the government as to the public lands in the state of Ohio, and says that now since we have eaten our cake we want you people of Colorado to divide your cake with us." To some extent, of course, the charge was shallow and overdrawn. To some extent, it made the East the West's great straw man, its suppressiveness more imaginary than real. But the West's "equal footing" argumentthat its states supposedly entered the Union with the same rights as the reststill had validity. Westerners' belief that without the same access to the land that established states had they could never gain equality still had a truth that rang through the years.
Technically, the western argument was simple. When western states entered the Unionmost of them in the second half of the nineteenth centurytheir admission bills contained the understanding that they entered on "equal footing" with other states. But, so the argument ran, this did not happen in fact; instead, as a condition of admission, the states were forced, one by one, to relinquish title to the single most important thing that may have guaranteed that equality: the public lands lying within the states. (Colorado's Enabling Act, for example, clearly said that the state would "forever disclaim all right and title to the unappropriated public lands" lying within it, and that the lands would "remain at the sole and entire disposition of the United States.") For the relinquishment each state received two sections in every township for schools, but nothing more, and early on insurgents were convinced that they lost more than they gained. Then, when the conservation era began and they lost access to the lands they had already given up, they were more convinced than ever.
If the government, then, used conservation as a mechanism to perpetuate unequal footing, all Westerners had to do was determine why. Actually, applying a kind of "devil theory" to their own history, they already knew, and they articulated what they thought in a kind of long, even elegant, syllogism. The Creative and Organic Acts, they said, made it impossible for small settler-entrepreneurs to make good livings on or near the forest reserves; the inability of individuals to prosper, in turn, impeded the growth of strong communities and states around them; the net result was that the absence of strong western states allowed the East to keep the region in its historic condition of economic and political servitude. The net result of the federal forest reserve policy, then, whether intended or not, was really colonialism. In other words, said insurgent pioneers, as long as easterners wielding federal powers could keep western lands out of the hands of western settlers, and keep their state governments weak and impotent around them, the East could exploit the region to its own benefit, as it always had. Colonialism, they saidin states rights termswas the way of the West. "Conservation" was just another way to maintain it.
The colonial theme was not insignificant; in the West it had a long and bitter history, and among anticonservation pioneers it was the final ingredient in "states rights." Like others, Coloradans were blunt in expressing their premise about the conservation-colonialism connection.
The East, they said, had dominated the West economically since the first days of the Republic; wherever there had been an "East," there had been a "West," and wherever it had been, it had been subjugated. In the 1890s, having exhausted its own land and resources, and finding control of the West both profitable and necessary, the East sought to continue it. The way to neutralize an emerging West (attempting to control its own destiny through the manipulation of its own resources) was essentially to take them away from it. This the East effectively did through "conservation." As for the federal government, filled with Easterners, not Westerners, it sanctioned it all. Specifically, it pushed the conservation movement not necessarily to save watersheds and downstream agriculture, as it claimed, but more as the means to an end: the shattering of the West's infant economic independence, the continuation of eastern economic supremacy, and the continuing dependence, in every colonial way, of West on East. Conservation, insisted westerners, was not about trees, but power.
In the final analysis, then, "states rights" was primarily an expression of rage by western people and states who felt economically damaged by conservation in general and forest reservations in particularall of it, they believed, engineered by a hostile eastern political establishment anxious to tighten the colonial yoke. But the expression still begged a critical question: colonialism and lack of economic opportunity aside, did western states and people really lose their rights? The answer, of course, was in the eye of the beholder. In the federal eye the answer was no, but in the insurgent eye it was yesand the difference in perceiving the question of what constituted the violation of rights and what was not was exactly what gave life to the conservation conflict in the first place.
Technically, constitutionally, of course, individual rights were not abridged. "Laissez faire" and "mission" obviously carried no constitutional guarantees and never had. Federal disposal policy, as unfortunate as its timing was, was completely legal. Pioneers had no sacred right to the land, whether they worked it or not, whether they tamed it or not, and whether their economic livelihood depended on it or not. Whether or not they ultimately failed may have been a moral question, but it was hardly unconstitutional.
The same was true with reference to the "rights" of the states; western arguments about "equal footing" were compelling but legally baseless. First, the doctrine had no constitutional foundation. Neither the phrase nor the concept of equal footing appeared in the constitution, and without constitutional roots it had no force at all. Second, the assertion that western lands were signed away to the federal government was not totally accurate. While federal pressure did exist, much of the West gave up its land willingly in return for the two townships. Some states hoped to cash in on the rising value of township land. Others hoped to avoid the staggering expense of public land maintenance and let its government shoulder the burden. In essence, the states sold their birthright only to renege on the agreement later by calling for cession and other concessions. Third, under any circumstances, decades of American history and tradition affirmed the power of Congress to hold and manage (and dispose of) the public domain any way it saw fit.
Still, in the mind of the West, a final point needed to be made: the fact that in the insurgent West (except for its quasi-legal approach to "equal footing"), "rights" were not simply a question of constitutionality in the first place. Whether the result of convenience or naivete, anticonservation Westerners consistently framed their concept of rights less in statute and law than in what they might have called "morality." Preaching an almost Lockean doctrinethat human or civil rights transcended the policies of states when those policies "abused" those governedthey still insisted, constitution or not, that they were wronged. If their constitutional rights had not been violated, in other words, they stubbornly held that their civil (or "moral") rights were.
Were they wrong? Except for a single, important caveat, the answer is no.
First, the caveat. While most of the insurgents, by far, were honest men and womenpart of what A.B. Guthrie has called "thousands of people just trying to get along"there was a small element among them that emphatically were not. And while the honest majority invoked "states rights" in the true belief that it had been harmed, the back country spoilsmen who simply raped the land, then invoked their rights' when the government crushed them, used the doctrine as a shield. The states rights movement was never primarily deep cover for looters, but they did exist in it and their rhetoric was always cynical and self-serving.
As for the rest, though, there was truth in all they said.
Colonialism, for example, did exist, and it always had. And it did negatively effect Westerners in their confrontation with conservation. As far back as they could remember, they had been plagued by railroad abuses, high tariffs, gold standards, the monopolization of western economic fields by eastern corporations, and a host of other mechanisms assuring eastern economic supremacy in western regions. For generations the West had lived with control. Like railroad abuses, high tariffs, and gold standards, "conservation" was just another form of it.
The most salient truth, perhaps, was the fact that the East did force the Creative Act and everything that followed it. The West's first reserves were surveyed by eastern scientific "experts" and withdrawn by eastern presidents. The reserves' initial regulations were written by eastern menGLO law clerks and others ill-trained for the joband enforced by cadres of eastern political spoilsmen on the ground. The post-1900 conservation program was run by eastern progressives more interested in the application of science and "efficiency" to western conservation problems than in mitigating their effects on western people. And, despite repeated federal contentions to the contrary, the regulations of 1891 were not fairly administered across the West, and the national forests were largely inaccessible. In other words, eastern policy did have a negative effect on the West. Operated from a distance, even with the best of intentions, the early reserves simply did not work for Westerners. In its headlong pursuit of the general good, the government simply ignored too many individual goods for this to happen.
In the end, because of these facts, the insurgent West believed it had every right to sayin moral terms if not legalthat its rights, personal and state alike, were compromised away in the collision with conservation. Perhaps it was right. Perhaps it was not. No one will ever know, and now it does not matter. What matters now, simply, is the fact that the expression was made. A hundred years ago it gave a generation of Americans, East and West alike, the opportunity to look into the soul of the West to try to understand the complex relation existing there between men, land, and rights. Unfortunately, it largely failed to do it. But in so doing, it sent a message to the future.
The message is this: that a maddening dynamicfederal government versus the West over the question of landed rightsexists in the western psyche, that it always had, that it always will, and that sooner or later it must be confronted once and for all if it is to stop causing the deep sectional and national agonies that it has in the past. When it appeared the first time, a hundred years ago, no one learned anything from the bitter controversy it caused. When it happened again in 1979, the result was the same. Now, a century and two Sagebrush Rebellions later, perhaps it is time to approach the dynamic again, East and West alike, states and federal government alike, not to defend or condemn it, for this no longer matters, but simply to acknowledge it, dissect it, and attempt to understand it. To do less will guarantee two things: a West perpetually at war with its demons, and, because of that, new convulsions out of old.