Legacies of the Sagebrush Rebellion: A Conversation with Jonathan Thompson

Close up person wearing denim jacket that says "Sagebrush Rebellion"

On October 7, 2020 I spoke with Jonathan Thompson, Contributing Editor for High Country News. In the interview we discuss some of his wide-ranging coverage on land management and settler colonialism across the Western U.S. Thompson traces the multilayered histories of the Sagebrush Rebellion; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM); and how the “constitutional sheriff” has emerged from notions of county supremacy. These sheriffs simultaneously work within and against federalized law enforcement structures. As rebels clash with the BLM, we see an array of political commitments, violence, and worldviews that speak to an increasingly militarized society, reliant on the criminal legal system for solutions. Thompson draws connections regarding how lives and lands are managed, advocating for people to divest from problematic myths around frontier individualism and public lands.

Stream or download our conversation here.

Interview Highlights

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Robert Lundberg: I’ve been a regular subscriber of High Country News for several years, and your work has helped me think through complexities around land use, environmental regulation, and socio-political landscapes and histories in the west. My partner and I have been organizing a project around the role of the sheriff and we’ve been fascinated with the intersection between law enforcement and land use in conflicts that have arisen in the west. We’re interested in how the Bureau of Land Management has become a site of contention, and how present-day movements have been informed by the past. Could you tell us more about BLM and the Sagebrush Rebellion?

Headshot of a man with dark hair and graying beard.
Jonathan Thompson, Contributing Editor for High Country News.

Jonathan Thompson: When the United States was expanding westward in the 19th century, the federal government was stealing land from the Indigenous peoples who had inhabited what we now call the western United States for millennia, and putting that land into what they called the public domain. They created mining and homesteading laws to give that land away to white settlers who were moving westward. Some of the public domain land was withdrawn and turned into national forests, and some was withdrawn to create national monuments. But even after all mining claims were made, after forest reserves were taken out, and after national monuments like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were taken out, there were still millions and millions of acres of public domain left. Most of that land was grazing land, and ranchers ran their cows on the public domain without any regulations or paying any fees. That was true up until 1934 when the Taylor Grazing Act was passed, which created some regulations and also created a very low grazing fee for cattle. Over time, efforts to impose order on the free range of the public domain centralized under the General Land Office and then the Grazing Bureau, which in the 1940s became the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

As they started stepping up regulations, ranchers got upset because they didn’t want to pay to graze their cows on public land. In the middle of the 1940s there was a big revolt amongst ranchers of the rural West, as well as a lot of politicians, who wanted to transfer the public domain to ranchers or the states so that they could have a free range on it again. That didn’t succeed, but it set something in motion that continued for years after, as over time there was more encroachment on the public domain and what the ranchers saw as their rights. 

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a bunch of environmental laws were passed—The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, The Endangered Species Act—and that culminated in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Land Policy Management Act, which said that the Bureau of Land Management was going to manage public domain land for multiple uses which include recreation, sightseeing, and wildlife. Just as importantly, there would be no more privatization of public land. That angered a lot of people in the rural West because they felt that the public land was their birthright, and that started what we now call the first Sagebrush Rebellion, which was in the late 70s during the Carter administration. A lot of ranchers, as well as extractive industries and the politicians who they supported, rose up and tried to pass laws that would transfer public lands to the states and ultimately privatize them. None of them progressed very far and then Ronald Reagan, a self-proclaimed sagebrush rebel, was elected. He appointed James Watt (also a sagebrush rebel) as his Interior Secretary to oversee all the public lands, so the rebellion faded away.

RL: Could you tell us about how the Sagebrush Rebellion has changed over the years and about some of the recent events that have taken place, such as the ATV rides through Recapture Canyon and the occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge?

Ronald Reagan on the 1980 cover of High Country News
Ronald Reagan on the cover of High Country News. December 12, 1980. Courtesy of High Country News.

JT: While the first rebellion faded away when Reagan was elected, in some places it continued to smolder. One of those places was San Juan County, Utah in southeastern Utah, where industries like uranium mining really suffered. Fast forward to 2008, when Obama’s election sparked a conservative backlash across the entire nation. It rekindled the Sagebrush Rebellion but in a different form this time, where a lot of the the main players were not necessarily ranchers or miners. One of those people was a guy named Phil Lyman, who was elected county commissioner in San Juan County in 2010. In San Juan, ATV trails were being closed by the BLM, including one that went through Recapture Canyon, because people were damaging archaeological resources with their motorized vehicles. In early 2014, Phil Lyman decided he was going to have a protest where locals rode their ATVs down a closed trail in Recapture Canyon.

Almost exactly a month before this protest, there was a guy over in Nevada named Cliven Bundy, who had been illegally grazing his cows on BLM land for decades without paying. The BLM decided to round up his cows and get them off public land, and Cliven Bundy sent out a call for help. These so-called militias converged on his ranch heavily armed, and there was a big standoff with the BLM that gained national attention. 

The Malheur occupation happened about two years later, and it was also about alleged federal overreach. In a rural Oregon county there were some ranchers, the Hammonds, who had a long history of antagonism towards the Bureau of Land Management. They had done all kinds of things, including intentionally starting some fires on public lands, and had been convicted of some of those crimes. They spent a few months in jail, but then the prosecutors came back and said this is a form of terrorism because it destroyed federal property and there’s a minimum sentence they have to serve. The judge agreed, so they sentenced them to a few more years in jail. And then the same people that showed up at the Bundy ranch and Recapture Canyon went to Burns, Oregon. First, they held a protest against the extra sentencing, then they overtook the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. They occupied this refuge for about a month and ultimately one of the occupiers was killed by police when they were ambushed at a roadblock.

RL: The occupation at Malheur brings up some interesting questions about criminal justice, from mandatory minimum sentencing to the prosecution of those who were involved in the occupation. Could you tell us how these situations played out in court and how they compare to others prosecuted by BLM, such as the cases of Timothy DeChristopher and the Dann sisters? 

JT: The Malheur occupiers were led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who were Cliven Bundy’s sons from the Bundy ranch. None of those guys have ever served any jail time—they went to trial and they were not found guilty. The Hammonds ultimately were pardoned by President Trump so they did not end up serving out their sentence. When you compare that to other cases, you really wonder what’s going on. 

One case is the Dann sisters, Western Shoshone elders in Nevada who put their cattle on BLM land and justified it by saying that the land was stolen from their ancestors by the federal government and they were never adequately compensated for it, so they had the right to put their cattle on it. There was a lot of back and forth that went to court and they were eventually found guilty. The BLM rounded up 500 of their horses and fined them over $200,000 as back grazing fees. When they refused to pay the BLM rounded up all of their livestock and auctioned it off, so it was pretty severe punishment, especially when you compare it to Cliven Bundy who continues to graze his cattle illegally on public land without any punishment. 

Man in a dark jacket and tie surrounded by reporters with microphones.
Tim DeChristopher thanks his supporters on 3 March, 2011, just outside the federal courthouse in Salt Lake City where he was found guilty of two felonies for disrupting a Utah BLM oil and gas lease auction in 2009. Photo ©2011 by Ed Kosmicki.

Another one that you mentioned is Tim DeChristopher who, as a form of protest, went to an oil and gas auction and bid on several parcels that abutted national parks to keep them out of the hands of the oil and gas companies. He never intended to pay for them; he had to pay a $10,000 fine and spend time in jail. The message it sends, especially with the Bundys getting off basically scot-free, is that if you show up with big guns you can also get off scot-free. 

RL: In recent years the BLM has gained more national attention for things such as moving their headquarters from Washington D.C. to western Colorado, ramping up the leasing of federal lands for oil and gas drilling, and appointing leaders from some of these movements we’ve talked about. Could you expand on these shifts at the BLM and their significance?

JT: The Trump administration has made no secret of what they want to do to the federal land and management agencies as well as the EPA, but basically most of the people that they have appointed to run these agencies are people who have spent most of their career trying to destroy them. A perfect example is William Perry Pendley, who has been the acting director of the BLM for the last year. Before that he spent 30 years as the director of something called the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which is the legal arm of the Sagebrush Rebellion and most of their legal actions have been against the Bureau of Land Management. William Perry Pendley has suggested that the idea of federal land is unconstitutional and that all federal land management agencies should be destroyed, and here he is running the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees 250 million acres of land. The Trump administration has carried out a massive rollback of environmental protections of all sorts and opened the doors for corporations to run roughshod over public land, over human health, over worker safety, you name it. And it’s all because of this idea that the government and regulations are a bad thing.

RL: Throughout what we’ve discussed there also seems to be a common romanticization of myths and symbols associated with the western frontier. How do you think we disentangle some of the legitimate grievances at play from some of these larger ideological battles that are steeped in settler colonial ideals and predicated on an erasure of Indigenous peoples, their treaties, and their relations with land?

JT: I think there’s mythology on both sides. There’s this cowboy mythology and the myth of the western rancher standing up to the federal government, which is not true because ever since this land was stolen the government has been subsidizing the settler colonial effort by giving it away. But there are myths on the other side as well, where people hold up the public lands and our national parks and monuments as examples of American exceptionalism. I think that’s another dangerous myth, because it erases the actual history of those public lands and where they came from—stolen from the people who lived there using violence, coercion or treachery. There is a dark history behind these public lands, so I think we need to unravel those myths and go beyond them and think about how we can remedy some of these things.

Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument
Cedar Mesa Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management, 2016.

In my opinion one of the things that began unraveling the myths but also making some amends was the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument by the Obama administration. Five different tribes who had their ancestral roots in that land were going to play a fairly major role in managing and interpreting that national monument. I think that would have been a great beginning and still can be. And I think that kind of thing could go a long way towards healing some of the problems that we have today. 

The impetus for this interview came out of a discussion group, BLM x BLM, housed at the Center for 21st Century Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and co-sponsored by the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, exploring what arises when we ask: what does the Bureau of Land Management have to do with Black Lives Matter? I’d like to thank these institutions as well as all the members of this group for their insights and energy. Furthermore, I’d like to extend a particular thanks to Alexandra Lakind who co-wrote the questions and text for this piece. 

Featured image: Sagebrush rebel at the Recapture Canyon protest. Photo by Jonathan Thompson. Image courtesy of Jonathan Thompson.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Jonathan P. Thompson is an author and journalist focusing on the land, communities, and cultures of the Western U.S.. He is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster (Torrey House, 2018); Behind the Slickrock Curtain (Lost Souls, 2020); and the forthcoming Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands (Torrey House, 2021). Contact.

Robert Lundberg is an attorney and Equal Justice Works fellow at Midwest Environmental Advocates, where he works with Tribes to protect clean water and support Tribal environmental sovereignty. Lundberg earned his J.D. and Master’s in Environmental Studies from UW-Madison. Additionally, he is a musician and visual artist whose work often explores environmental themes. His past contributions to Edge Effects include “Same Place, Different Photograph.” Contact.