The Nation's Pulse

A New Sagebrush Rebellion?

Rex Rammell's small government conservatism makes him a plausible candidate for Idaho governor -- but this isn't the 1980s.

By 4.14.10

True to his word, GOP gubernatorial primary candidate Rex Rammell held a townhall meeting in Salmon the other night that drew thirty mostly elderly folks; not many, but double the recent caucus of the Lemhi County Democrats. Rex started with an invocation and a Pledge of Allegiance, two things that the secular Democrats -- with their blasé views of eternity and patriotism -- dispensed with. Though the Democrats had better food. Rex served tepid, soggy spaghetti; odd in itself considering the red meat that would come later. Poor Rex had parked his spiffy Palinesque blue tour bus in a parking lot in the middle of town for the whole day, as a draw. Everybody in Salmon must have seen it. It was plastered with his campaign info, and a large painted Rex-Head smiled at passersby all day. Maybe they were clued-in about his spaghetti recipe.

Rex's crowd -- despite their age -- were feistier than the Democrats. I wouldn't describe them as Tea Partiers, but if they share traits with them, it's because they've been Tea Partiers their entire lives. One old cowboy wore a foot-long sheathed hunting knife on his belt. Rex himself wore an elegant charcoal gray suit, a red tie, and a flag lapel pin. He's slightly gray and wears glasses, giving him the look of a nerdy accountant.

He had an opening act, a guy named Ron Gillett, a Stanley stockman and outfitter, who is Idaho's most well-known anti-wolf advocate. Gillett -- white-haired, barrel-chested, in his 60s -- is something of a folk hero due to noteworthy past confrontations with wolf supporters, including one where a woman named Lynne Stone had him arrested for assault resulting from a scuffle that she claimed injured her neck. Gillett told vivid stories about how wolf packs literally tore apart and ate their prey -- whether wild elk or domestic cattle and sheep -- alive. Luckily, we had already enjoyed our spaghetti dinner.

Rex might have made a mistake with the gory anti-wolf opener, especially as delivered by the fire-breathing Gillett. After he took over, the crowd was up for more of this, and it spilled over into his presentation. For a few minutes he lost control of his cranky audience. At that point they would've voted for Gillett for governor. Rex wanted to move on to state government fiscal policy, taxes, and other banalities. "Okay, one more question about the wolves, and then we'll move on." Rex's solution for those hundreds of wolves descended from the 1995 Canadian transplants? If elected governor, he promised to notify the federal government to immediately remove them, or he would order Idaho Fish and Game personnel to shoot them on sight. Good luck with that one, Rex. At one point he gave out his website address, and another oldtimer in the back blurted out: "I don't have a computer in my house, and I'll never have one!" To which Rex inquired as to the possibility of the man viewing the website on a neighbor's computer. The takeaway here is that Rex can forego a Twitter account as a campaign communication tool.

The wolf discussion was actually a facade masking the contentious issue of the management of federal public lands in Idaho (63% of the state) and other Western states. Rex firmly believes that these vast national parks, national monuments, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) holdings, etc., actually belong to their home states. This states rights argument is rooted in the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and has been hashed-over for a century in the West. When discoursing about this, Rex uses the words "sovereign" and "sovereignty." He tells his sympathetic listeners that if elected, the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture -- and other interested federal agencies -- won't have anything to say about the management of those lands, because they will belong to the people of Idaho. By coincidence, Utah governor Gary Herbert is lately considering legal action to attempt to supersede the Interior Department, and encourage private sector energy development on off-limits BLM tracts in Utah. This may be typical local federal-bashing in an election year, or it's another manifestation of our contemporary volatile national political conversation in a bad economy. Either way, it's a throwback to the old Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s.

The Sagebrush Rebellion: In 1976, the majority Democrats in Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). It established a system of administering BLM western lands, presuming those lands would never be privatized or governed by particular states. First term Utah senator Orrin Hatch introduced contrary legislation in the U.S. Senate in 1980 with sixteen co-sponsors, including another freshman, Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming. Hatch conceded that national parks and national monuments belonged under the purview of the Department of the Interior, but that BLM holdings, mostly sagebrush (hence, the "Sagebrush Rebellion"), were good for local economic development such as mining and ranching, so states and counties deserved a say in their management. Hatch's legislation went nowhere in a Democratic Congress, but Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 gave the Sagebrushers a friendly ear in the Oval Office. Reagan appointed energy development-friendly James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, and Watt battled FLPMA and environmental groups at every turn, and to the satisfaction of Western conservatives, until his legendary public gaffes forced his resignation in 1983.

Rex Rammell's small government conservatism makes him a plausible candidate for Idaho governor. He promises tax and spending cuts and fiscal responsibility in Boise. But the Sagebrusher shtick is a loser. The federal government has managed (actually "mismanaged" is the better word) the Western public lands for over a century. But only a dwindling minority of Westerners (as in Rex's mostly elderly audience) think the states would do a better job in administering them without subjecting them to political and corporate corruption. Though some might argue the latter is preferable to the past forty years of enviro-inspired litigation in the federal courts with no end in sight.

Rex has famously challenged his opponent -- incumbent Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter -- to a debate before the May 25 GOP primary. Otter probably will oblige, since the Idaho Legislature recently concluded business for the year, and it's suddenly the campaign season. But Rex is impatient. Just last week he told the Idaho Falls Post-Register: "I absolutely believe he's scared of me. He knows that he could be beat by Rex Rammell." 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.