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Reagan’s Strong Interior

The Sagebrush Rebellion needs serious revival today.

By 5.28.14

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Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle With Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today
By William Perry Pendley
(Regnery Publishing, 256 pages, $27.95)

In the late 1970s, the policies of the Carter Administration and its Department of the Interior generated an angry response from the Western States, including Colorado, which then had a Democratic Governor. That response became known as the “Sagebrush Rebellion” and contributed to the election of President Reagan.

In Sagebrush Rebel, Perry Pendley, an attorney who worked for the Interior Department during the Reagan Administration and is now the President and Chief Operating Officer of the Mountain States Legal Foundation, describes how the Reagan Administration promoted domestic energy production and the balanced use of federal lands in contrast to the cramped policies of the Carter Administration. Pendley explains that the impetus came from President Reagan, who “saw himself as an environmentalist and a Sagebrush Rebel.” Reagan’s Interior Secretaries, James Watt, William Clark, and Don Hodel, thus had support from the top as they worked to make the federal government a better neighbor to the States.

The record speaks for itself. During the Reagan Administration, Secretary Watt led the development of a Management by Objective program to pursue a number of goals, including opening federal lands to public access for appropriate use or users; managing, preserving, and restoring the National Park System for the use and benefit of the public; and increasing the domestic production of energy and mineral resources and the supply of quality water. Pendley details how the Interior Department achieved these objectives for the benefit of all Americans.    

This represents a substantial accomplishment. Pendley worked for each of Watt, Clark, and Hodel and has positive things to say about them and their work. As he explains, the Interior Department is “a vast federal department with nearly eighty thousand employees across the country and deep into the Pacific Ocean, in scores of bureaus and agencies, each assigned a host of conflicting, confusing, and contradictory statutory and regulatory responsibilities.” Managerial skill and vision were plainly required to get these employees working to further the Reagan Administration’s agenda.

Pendley describes how Watt met regularly with the Department’s career and political staff to explain and guide the implementation of the Department’s programs. He notes that Watt “enthusiastically engaged” the career employees, “eagerly” made the decisions that came with his position, and “graciously” credited the work done for him while simultaneously assuming responsibility for it. While Clark and Hodel each employed a different style, each led the Department consistently with President Reagan’s vision.

Moreover, he demonstrates that the caricature of James Watt was both unfounded and unfair. The Washington Post (Pravda on the Potomac) worked hard to generate an unflattering file photograph and turned Herblock loose to publish a “scurrilous” cartoon that falsely painted Watt as one who wanted to bulldoze Western forests on the theory, “Why save it? THE END IS NEAR.” Herblock’s cartoon lacked any support in the hearing record; in his confirmation hearing, Watt agreed that we should not “just gobble [our natural resources] up all at once,” and pointed to the “delicate balance” needed “to be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations.”

Since the Reagan Administration, the War on the West (and other parts of the country) has resumed. The battle pits those who believe that human beings are part of the problem against those who believe that we should manage our natural resources for the benefit of all, including future generations. The former rely on bureaucrats to administer federal regulations in a way that “inhibits the development of resources and the creation of jobs.”

Is it time for a new Sagebrush Rebellion? Pendley suggests that it is already underway, pointing to the Obama Administration’s war on fracking, its application of the Endangered Species Act “to cripple or kill Western economic activity,” and its use of the Antiquities Act to take property away from the States. The Obama Administration’s interpretation and application of the environmental laws in the Supreme Court also support this notion. The Court smacked it for trying to grab the property of thousands of landowners and turn it into recreational trails; the landowners won due to the efforts of Mountain States and others. It unanimously smacked the Administration again for contending that a landowner could not challenge the EPA’s issuance of a compliance order that threatened them with substantial fines if they did not take the actions demanded until the EPA tried to enforce the order. In the meantime, the fines would continue to accrue.

Sagebrush Rebel is a stout defense of the Reagan Administration’s environmental policies and those in charge of the Department of the Interior. It shows not only how environmental extremists can be fought and turned back but also how the resources of the United States can be wisely put to use in a way that benefits both the present and future generations. The battle continues, and readers of Sagebrush Rebel will see how it can be won.

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About the Author
Jack Park is an attorney with the Atlanta law firm Strickland Brockington Lewis LLP.