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In 1982 conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives released an internal report titled “The Specter of Environmentalism.” Coming on the heels of Ronald Reagan’s landslide election in 1980, the appointment of James Watt to the Department of the Interior, and, above all, growing frustration with environmentalism, the Republican Study Committee’s report reflected a new conservative opposition to the modern environmental movement. It described environmentalists as “extremists” who posed a growing threat to the orderly development of the nation’s resources. It warned that environmentalism was not just about the environment anymore; it was about “an entire outlook of broad political and social affairs.” And it cast environmentalism in the keywords of a culture war: it was the rallying point for liberals, revolutionaries, and the counterculture. The report concluded that challenging environmental reform offered a political opportunity for the Republican party. Just a decade after Richard M. Nixon had signed into law the legislative foundations of the modern environmental regulatory state, the Republican party saw political advantage in opposing efforts to increase protection of the environment, specifically, an expanding and cumbersome array of federal environmental regulations. It was a strategy that played particularly well in the American West, where citizens, local and state government officials, and their political allies in Congress had grown increasingly angry at what they described as the environmentalists’ “War on the West.”[1]

The modern American environmental movement has been a broad and varied affair—spanning issues from clean air and water to nuclear energy to international trade treaties and mobilizing people and organizations at both the local and the national levels. Yet much of the historical literature on American environmental politics has explored the social and cultural dimensions of environmental activism and reform while neglecting the evolution of the opposition to environmentalism.[2] This essay examines the formative role that debates over public lands and wilderness protection played in the reorganization and polarization of American environmental politics between the 1960s and 1990s. Focusing on those debates recasts our understanding of modern environmental politics. To explain the genesis of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s and early 1970s, many scholars have emphasized a transition from an older generation of place-based conservation issues, such as parks, public lands, and wilderness, to a newer generation of environmental issues focused on clean air and water, toxics and hazardous waste, and other threats to human health.[3] That transition has been important to the dynamics of the modern environmental movement, but it does not explain the organization and transformation of the environmental opposition. Some of the most popular manifestations of the environmental opposition since the 1970s, including the western stirrings known as the sagebrush rebellion and the wise use movement, emerged most forcefully and publicly in response, not to the new environmental issues, but to changed debates over the earlier conservation issues, such as public lands and wilderness.

Analysis of the opposition to protection of public lands raises questions about the West in modern American politics. The federal government had a defining presence in the West during the twentieth century, building dams to harness rivers, expanding the region’s transportation system, sponsoring the military-industrial complex, and, most important to this article, overseeing the federal lands. Indeed, the federal government owns 50 percent of the land in Alaska and eleven states in the West (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming). The politics of these twelve western states have never been entirely congruent with national politics. The fierce libertarianism of western Republicans and the antifederal politics of western Democrats have often confounded national politics. But although the West has often been idiosyncratic, at important moments its politics have not only aligned with, but helped reshape, national politics. Indeed, without the West’s sharp turn right, the Republican party would not have held a majority in the Senate during such key periods in American history as the start of the Reagan administration, the mid-1990s (the heyday of the Contract with America), and the start of the George W. Bush administration. Considering the debates over the public lands and the evolution of the New Right together suggests that the West’s turn toward the political Right after the 1970s did more than track the rise of Republican power nationwide; it played an important supporting role in the consolidation of modern conservatism and postwar Republican political power.[4]

To understand the evolution of the environmental opposition and its importance to American politics, one must consider the political claims and strategies that the environmental movement itself pursued in the 1960s and 1970s. On the issue of the public lands, I argue, wilderness advocates adopted a political strategy grounded in “reform liberalism,” which emphasized the role of government in protecting the public interest. Such reform liberalism allied wilderness advocates with the Democratic party, particularly during Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, and hitched the success of environmental reform to an expansion of the powers and responsibilities of the federal government.[5] That strategy helps explain the mixed success of the environmental opposition in the 1980s and 1990s. The opposition in the West, represented by the sagebrush rebellion and the wise use movement, emerged as a response, not just to the successes of wilderness advocates, but to the way environmental decisions were made, the role of the federal government in environmental protection, and the consequences that had for free enterprise and private property owners. Between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, the opposition evolved in ways that shaped and reflected broader shifts in the New Right, as critics of public lands protection moved away from the reactionary opposition to the federal government and environmental reform grounded in states’ rights claims characteristic of the sagebrush rebellion, toward the more positive assertions of individual property rights and liberties characteristic of the wise use movement. Notably, whereas in the 1980s wilderness advocates met the challenges of the sagebrush rebellion and the Reagan administration with confidence, they later struggled to do so in the face of the wise use movement. This changing political relationship between wilderness advocates and their opponents—defined by competing definitions of the public good, individual rights, and the role of government—has been important, not just to environmental politics and the American West, but to the rise of the conservative Right in national politics.

Wilderness and the Public Interest

The Wilderness Act of 1964 was among the earliest of a new generation of laws expanding the federal government’s responsibilities for environmental oversight. It established the National Wilderness Preservation System, a new category of protection for federal lands that barred most forms of development and the use of motorized vehicles from designated areas and, equally important, established a ten-year public review process for protecting more such federally owned lands as wilderness in the future. The new law aimed to “secure for the American people of present and future generations the benefits of an enduring resource of wilderness.” That goal reflected the wilderness movement’s confidence that its strongest argument for protecting the public lands was an appeal to the national interest.[6]

This confidence that the Wilderness Act met a public interest inspired wilderness advocates and propelled the legislation forward. When the Wilderness Act became law in 1964, it was approved by the Senate 73–12 and by the House 373–1. Its coalition of supporters included not only national and local conservation organizations, such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club, but the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, the American Planning and Civic Association, and the nation’s leading labor organization, the American Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations. Knowing that environmental politics would be paralyzed by partisanship in the 1980s and 1990s, it is worth considering how the Wilderness Act galvanized such a broad constituency in the 1960s. The campaign was not won with careful research briefs on the state of the nation’s natural resources or the scientific benefits of protecting the public lands. Instead, the campaign appealed to national values—patriotism, spirituality, outdoor recreation, and a respect for nature—and the responsibility of the people and the government to protect them.[7]

This appeal to the public interest succeeded in part because of the wilderness movement’s moderate approach to politics. Not surprisingly, the Wilderness Act faced opposition, largely from the natural resource industries and western congressional representatives. Industry, concerned that wilderness protection would limit development of the public lands, spearheaded the opposition. In response, wilderness proponents did not challenge the nation’s commitment to economic progress or, more specifically, the access of industry to economically valuable public lands. During the eight years of legislative debate that led to the Wilderness Act, proponents of the law accepted compromises that reduced the threat wilderness designations might pose to economic activities. For instance, the Wilderness Act allowed the continuation of grazing in perpetuity, of mineral exploration until 1984, and of some commercial activities (such as guided trips and camps) where they were already established in wilderness areas. And leading wilderness advocates promoted a system that would include 2 or 3 percent of the nation’s total land—almost entirely lands that were not valued for timber, minerals, or other economic uses.[8] This pragmatic approach, which acknowledged the need for both economic development and wilderness preservation, generated broad political support in Congress.

The Wilderness Act, like much of the important environmental legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, was championed foremost by Democrats, particularly in the Senate, where it enjoyed the support of Frank Church of Idaho, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and Clinton Anderson of New Mexico as well as the Johnson administration. These Democrats built bipartisan support for the legislation with Republicans. Yet party support for the Wilderness Act, as for environmental reform more generally in these years, was not uniform. In the House of Representatives, Wayne Aspinall, a Colorado Democrat, was the legislation’s most dogged opponent. Aspinall carefully guarded the West’s ability to develop its natural resources; as chair of the House Interior Committee with oversight of the public lands, he was in a powerful position to do so. It was John Saylor, a Pennsylvania Republican, who was the Wilderness Act’s leading proponent on the House Interior Committee. Why was a Democrat the leading opponent of the Wilderness Act and a Republican its leading proponent in the House? Both Aspinall and Saylor were political mavericks, whose leadership roles in environmental reform were shaped more by their allegiances to their home constituencies than the priorities of their parties. Aspinall represented rural Colorado and prized western self-determination, which for him meant harnessing federal reclamation to promote the West’s independence and economic development. Saylor represented rural Pennsylvania and joined his personal appreciation for the West to a commitment to keeping the federal government out of the energy business. Discouraging federal construction of hydroelectric dams was good for private coal mines and miners in his district. Aspinall and Saylor’s roles in this debate offer a reminder of the complex ways environmental issues map onto party politics.[9]

Like much of the environmental legislation enacted in these years, the Wilderness Act vested increased powers in the federal government. Neither wilderness advocates nor environmentalists more generally placed a blind faith in the government; they knew that many environmental problems, from clear-cutting of forests to indiscriminate use of ddt, were the product of government action or inaction. But wilderness activists joined a liberal confidence in the government’s ability to protect the public interest with a commitment to participatory democracy. The Wilderness Act required congressional approval of all future expansions of the wilderness system, rather than placing such powers solely in the executive branch. Requiring such congressional oversight was Aspinall’s key achievement in the legislative negotiations, but the wilderness movement turned that compromise to its advantage. The Wilderness Society made citizen involvement the centerpiece of its activities. Stewart M. Brandborg, the Wilderness Society’s executive director from 1964 to 1976, did not choose to invest the organization’s limited resources in economic, scientific, or legal expertise—strategies that became increasingly important for many of the national environmental organizations, including the Wilderness Society, in the 1970s and 1980s. In his view protecting wilderness meant “stimulating widespread involvement of public-spirited private citizens across the country in the work of rounding out the Wilderness System.” For the Wilderness Society in the late 1960s, success was measured not only by the acres of wilderness saved but also by the number of wilderness activists trained. Thousands of citizens took part in wilderness reviews in these years, attending wilderness advocacy training programs, surveying potential wilderness areas, participating in agency hearings, and testifying before Congress.[10]

It was an effective political strategy for the wilderness movement. Between 1964 and 1978 Congress protected 134 additional wilderness areas, and at the behest of citizens, it often protected more land than the federal land agencies recommended. The wilderness movement’s success in shepherding expanded wilderness proposals through the agencies and to Congress is notable for two reasons. First, congressional oversight of wilderness designation might be expected to favor resource industries, their trade associations, and western political interests, which had historically worked in close cooperation to promote economic development on the public lands. That was not so under the Wilderness Act. Through coordinated and sustained citizen participation, wilderness advocates guided the implementation of the Wilderness Act—a task made easier by the low economic value of the public lands considered for protection in the 1960s. Second, the commitment to legislative activism is significant in the context of the late 1960s and early 1970s. While other contemporaneous movements that made rights-based political claims, such as the antiwar movement, black power, and the protests at the Democratic Convention in 1968, favored extralegal protest activities, the wilderness movement worked through the political system for legislative change. There were no tree-sits or road blockades and few extralegal activities on behalf of public lands protection (all became hallmarks of more radical environmental activism in the 1980s). Like a broad range of environmental activists in these years, wilderness advocates remained committed to advancing reform by working through the political system.[11]

This political strategy is relevant to the place of wilderness advocacy in environmental and American politics. Historians have described a post-World-War-II-era shift from a reform-based liberalism central to the Democratic party to a rights-based liberalism focused on advancing the interests of specific social groups.[12] Many scholars have folded the emerging environmental movement into the new generation of rights-based social movements that reshaped the Democratic party and national politics in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars have noted that environmentalists argued for people’s right to a safe and healthy environment and the rights of nature, much as other social movements of the 1960s advocated on behalf of their constituencies. They have often singled out Earth Day as a pivotal moment in the history of American environmental politics, when new environmental concerns and a changing liberalism seemed to converge, thrusting a new environmental movement into the national limelight. In late April 1970, millions of Americans from all walks of life expressed concern about the environment at political rallies, educational forums, stream cleanups, antibusiness protests, parades, and more. Some activists hoped to launch what one Earth Day speaker described as a “social revolution based on the platform of ecology.” One historian of the sixties has suggested that “the ecology movement broadened the definition of domination to include human exploitation of nature, and it extended the notion of community to the entire ecosphere.” Focusing on Earth Day makes it easy to find the origins of the modern environmental movement in the social and political ferment of the protest movements of the sixties—emphasizing aspirations to challenge the status quo, embrace militancy, and push for social and cultural change. But such activities and hopes, while important, did not distinguish the most lasting accomplishments in environmental protection in the 1960s and 1970s.[13]

In contrast, situating the growing concern for the environment in an earlier tradition of reform liberalism—embraced most enthusiastically by the Democratic party—reveals that much environmental reform, including protection of public lands, sought to enlarge federal responsibilities, avowedly for the good of all Americans. Indeed, Democratic leadership was so strong that Richard Nixon, a Republican, considered it a political imperative to make environmental issues a centerpiece of his administration’s first-term domestic agenda. He established the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law a wide range of federal environmental measures, including additional wilderness legislation, the Clean Air Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act (nepa), which was especially important for public lands policy. All either vested new powers in, or expanded the responsibilities of, the federal government for addressing environmental issues. While the issues differed, and rights-based claims were important, particularly in the clean air and water campaigns, the emphasis in many of the campaigns and the legislation they promoted was on the shared threat to the environment and the public welfare and the national interest in addressing environmental degradation. As Senator Edmund Muskie, a Maine Democrat, argued on Earth Day, “The only strategy that makes sense is a total strategy to protect the total environment.” He described the “Environmental Revolution” as “one of laws, not men; one of values, not ideology; and one of achievement, not unfulfilled promises.” The debates over the public lands suggest that this political formula—rooted in reform liberalism, committed to a strong federal government, and predicated on the public interest—more than the protest politics of Earth Day or rights-based political claims, was vital to the emerging environmental movement. Indeed, this liberal faith in the government both laid the groundwork for the modern environmental regulatory state and later provoked the environmental opposition, especially in the West.[14]

The Sagebrush Rebellion and States’ Rights

In November 1980, just after Ronald Reagan’s landslide election, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska took the podium at a convention in Salt Lake City, Utah. With the Reagan administration incoming and a newly elected Republican majority in the Senate, Stevens had come to talk of change. He spoke before the League for the Advancement of States’ Equal Rights, which included state and local government officials, industry representatives, and citizens who made their living in the resource industries. Stevens was there to pump up expectations for a Reagan White House. “The overwhelming change represents, to my point of view, that the emerging philosophy is one of Western thought: less government, wise use of lands, and movement toward the private sectors.” Stevens’s driving concern was the expansion of environmental regulations since the early 1970s. Wilderness advocates had harnessed growing public concern about the environment and new legislative and legal tools, such as nepa, to expand their campaigns for the protection of public lands. In 1971, the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club had succeeded in negotiating a wilderness review of federal public lands in Alaska as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. In 1972, the Sierra Club had filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service for failure to comply with nepa, which forced a wilderness review of all roadless areas in the national forests. And in 1976, as part of a restructuring of the Bureau of Land Management (blm), wilderness advocates had negotiated a wilderness review of the public domain, the portion of federally owned land managed by the blm. The modest ambitions for wilderness protection when the Wilderness Act became law had given way: these legislative and legal victories dramatically expanded the potential scope of the wilderness system. Overseeing the new reviews became a major part of the Carter administration’s environmental agenda. And in the late 1970s, those reviews came to symbolize an increasingly bureaucratic approach to federal environmental decision making that involved extensive public hearings and the scientific, economic, and other technical assessments necessary to satisfy nepa’s requirement for comprehensive environmental impact statements.[15]

In 1978, the Conservative Digest lumped the new wilderness reviews together under the heading “The Big Federal Land Grab.” For citizens, companies, and politicians in the rural West, those reviews and their potential to lock up the public lands, if not through new wilderness designations then through appeals, lawsuits, and other dilatory tactics, epitomized an increasingly inefficient federal bureaucracy. In the 1960s, when wilderness reviews remained modest in scope, wilderness advocates had faced little popular or organized opposition to their campaigns, but in the late 1970s, with the new reviews for Alaska, the national forests, and the public domain, involving more than 200 million acres, that began to change. In Alaska residents protested the expanded reviews by putting up signs that read “States Rights!” and “Alaskans Can Manage Alaskan Lands” and singing songs that asked, “Where is the statehood promised long ago? Where did our rights and freedoms go?” In the mountain West, truckers formed logging convoys that thundered through rural towns en route to wilderness hearings for the national forests. Boise Cascade, a manufacturer of wood and paper products, ran advertisements that warned: “You bet we have an economic interest. You do too. So does your whole town.” Such sentiments caught the attention of western lawmakers. In 1980 Jim Santini, a Democratic representative from Nevada, complained that since the late 1960s, the “entire federal decision-making pendulum” had swung toward policies that aimed to “exclude, restrict, or limit use” of natural resources in the West. Such concerns helped mark the beginning of what became known as the sagebrush rebellion: a populist protest against public lands reform supported by western citizens, the natural resource industries, and local and state governments in the West. In the 1970s the sagebrush rebellion was significant in the changing politics of the Republican party in the West, both in its resemblance to ascendant conservatism and the New Right nationally—for example, the involvement of citizens and growing political cooperation among conservative interests—and in its emphasis on long-standing themes in conservative thought, such as states’ rights.[16]

Concern about public lands management and opposition to the federal government were not new in western politics. In the 1920s and the 1940s, westerners had tried to claim the federally owned public lands for the states and private interests—although neither in the Hoover nor in the Roosevelt administration did the effort succeed. In part, the failures resulted from disagreement among westerners, including ranchers, local and state officials, and their representatives in Washington, D.C. Indeed, many ranchers and western Republicans had been instrumental in strengthening federal oversight of the public lands during the Progressive Era. And western Democrats, such as Senator Pat McCarran, a Nevada Democrat, had challenged that oversight in the 1940s. During those earlier protests, as during the sagebrush rebellion and the wise use movement that followed it, the key political claims turned on competing ideas of private property, states’ rights, western sovereignty, and the role of the federal government, and there was confusion and disagreement among those most concerned with the future of the public lands in the West. After the 1970s the western libertarian sensibilities that underlay objections to federal ownership of public lands increasingly aligned with the Right’s political formula in the West and nationwide.[17]

“ACT NOW! Join the grassroots rebellion against OVER-GOVERNMENT.” That call to action, produced by a jeep club in New Mexico and aimed at local recreationists, shows how the sagebrush rebellion mobilized conservative citizen activism in the rural West. Historians have noted the mobilization of conservative citizens during the 1960s in other parts of the country, such as the suburbs of cities, including Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta, over civil rights legislation, school busing programs, neighborhood integration, and related issues. The sagebrush rebellion similarly marked a later but significant rise in conservative citizen involvement in public lands regulation. Behind the sagebrush rebellion were the emerging institutional structures of the New Right, joining citizens, corporations, and think tanks in promotion of conservative goals. In the sagebrush rebellion, foundations (such as the Mountain States Legal Foundation), wealthy conservative donors (such as Joseph Coors), industry groups (such as the Western Timber Association), and companies (such as Texaco, Amoco, and Boise Cascade) provided logistical, financial, and political support. While the public lands issues important to the sagebrush rebellion were generally western, the basic concerns about the expansion of federal power were similar to those expressed by conservative movements elsewhere in the country. Many sagebrush rebels viewed the wilderness system as the work of outsiders, usually urban environmentalists and an overbearing federal government, and an imposition on citizen rights, western self-determination, and the West’s traditional values. Wilderness designation became a focal point for such concerns. The jeep club argued it was time to “Repeal the Wilderness Act.” Indeed, for a $2 donation you could get a bumper sticker stating just that.[18]

Although sagebrush rebels voiced many objections to an expanding federal government and the new wilderness reviews, at the national level their concerns were most often framed in the language of states’ rights. As Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, explained, the states had “rights to the vast amounts of land within their boundaries” that were being denied by the federal government. Indeed, the federal government, through the activities of federal land agencies such as the Forest Service and the blm, oversaw much of the land in many western states—Alaska (89.4%), Nevada (86.1%), Idaho (63.7%), Utah (63.6%), and Oregon (52.4%). And the widening scope of environmental reviews clouded the future of those lands for use by local residents and for economic development. The sagebrush rebels presumed that the states could manage the land in keeping with local interests, giving priority to free enterprise and dispensing with the federal government red tape. Those claims formed the centerpiece of the sagebrush rebellion, which made the transfer of federal lands to the states its core policy goal. In 1978 the Nevada state legislature passed legislation laying claim to the federal lands within its borders. By 1980 Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Montana, and Colorado all entertained similar legislation. As a state legislator from Wyoming explained, the “Western Conference [of states] has had as its highest priority concern the ownership and management of public lands in Western States.” An emphasis on states’ rights, of course, had long been a central plank of conservative politics in a range of political debates, including those about civil rights, federal education policy, and government regulation. What is notable is that, despite the popular outcry of rural westerners party to the sagebrush rebellion, states’ rights remained the primary emphasis, more so than the rights of citizens, the interests of local communities, or even the merits of private enterprise (all concerns that drew more attention later in the wise use movement).[19]

In 1964, when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the newly created National Wilderness Preservation System included 9 million acres in the West. [+]

In 1964, when Congress passed the Wilderness Act, the newly created National Wilderness Preservation System included 9 million acres in the West. By 1994 the system included more than 100 million acres in the West, of which 57 million acres were in Alaska. These maps show the approximate location of the federal wilderness areas: black areas are units of the system of more than 25,000 acres; black stars are units of the system of less than 25,000 acres; gray areas are lands outside the system managed by federal land agencies. Map by James Morton Turner.

With Republicans in control of the White House and the Senate in 1981, it seemed that the sagebrush rebellion was poised to advance its agenda for the public lands. This was a pivotal moment in the postwar political history of the West. Since the 1930s, the West had been good political country for Democrats. Between 1955 and 1977, the West consistently sent more Democrats than Republicans to the Senate. But in the 1970s the region began to gravitate toward the political Right. And from 1977 to 2008, the West consistently sent more Republicans than Democrats to the Senate. Indeed, when Reagan became president in 1981, the new Republican majority in the Senate hinged on the party’s success in the West; of 24 western Senate seats, Republicans occupied 17. Filling those seats was a new generation of ideologically conservative western politicians, including Hatch of Utah, Samuel Hayakawa of California, and Steven Symms of Idaho, all of whom highlighted public lands issues.[20] Symms’s victory marked a symbolic turning point in debates over the public lands: Symms, a leading proponent of the sagebrush rebellion, defeated Frank Church, the senior senator from Idaho, a longtime leader of the liberal Democrats and one of the nation’s foremost political champions of wilderness protection. On the campaign trail, Symms emphasized public lands, arguing that the residents of Idaho knew better how to manage their lands than “the people on the banks of the Potomac” and that developing the public lands was “vital for our survival as a free people.” In 1980 Symms and Ronald Reagan campaigned together in Idaho with a shared commitment to return the government to “the conservative, free-enterprise, God-fearing people” that made America strong. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, across much of the West, citizens voted for candidates like Symms and against candidates like Church, contributing to a sea change in national politics.[21]

Reagan appointed James Watt, a rural westerner by birth, Denver-based lawyer, ally of the sagebrush rebellion, and head of the industry-funded Mountain States Legal Foundation, as secretary of the interior with oversight of the nation’s federal lands. Watt’s aim was to reduce the size of the federal government; to involve local citizens, governments, and corporations (not just environmentalists) in decision making; and to expedite the responsible development of the public lands. Consider the key points Watt made in a 1981 speech: The Reagan administration represented a “change” that would end “fifty years of bad government.” The problem with government management was straightforward: “We’re tired of paralysis by analysis.” Looking forward, he promised: “I will err on the side of public use versus preservation.” He made no apologies: “We have a bias for private enterprise.” Watt criticized “old-time liberals” who placed their faith in government. And he prided himself on being a conservative who placed his faith in people and individuals and emphasized managing resources for economic development. Environmental groups stridently opposed Watt’s nomination from the start; the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club argued his corporate ties disqualified him from service. But it was for those same reasons that conservatives such as Joseph Coors described the Reagan administration as a “turning point for America” and Senator Stevens championed the rise of “Western thought” in Washington, D.C. The Reagan administration, represented by Watt, positioned itself in opposition to the wilderness movement, the national environmental community, and the federal environmental regulatory system—positions compatible with its “revitalization of Federalism.” As Watt put it, drawing on language consistent with the Republican Study Committee’s report on the “Specter of Environmentalism,” the Reagan administration was prepared to oppose “the tremendous alliance” of “very liberal” and “environmentalist groups” that sought shelter in the Democratic party and favored federal environmental regulation.[22]

The blustery presence of Secretary of the Interior James Watt made him a favorite of political cartoonists in the early years of the Reagan administration. [+]

The blustery presence of Secretary of the Interior James Watt made him a favorite of political cartoonists in the early years of the Reagan administration. This 1981 cartoon by Steve Greenberg highlights environmentalists’ concern that Watt’s nomination signaled the reversal of a decade of gains in the protection of public lands. Courtesy Steve Greenberg.

Although Watt and the sagebrush rebellion shared much common ground, their differences revealed important fault lines in conservative politics. The Reagan administration never fully embraced the states’ rights claims central to the sagebrush rebellion. Watt, like Reagan, was more likely to emphasize the importance of reducing the federal bureaucracy, promoting free enterprise, and protecting individual liberties than to call explicitly for states’ rights. In the early 1980s Watt advanced a long list of antienvironmental regulatory initiatives that reduced government oversight and promoted free enterprise, many of which addressed concerns of the sagebrush rebellion. For instance, Watt relaxed restrictions on grazing on federal lands, accelerated the process for permitting mining operations, reduced the scope of some wilderness reviews, attempted to amend the Wilderness Act to place a statutory time limit on its protection, and expedited the transfer of some federal land to the states under a “Good Neighbor Policy.” In Watt’s view, the “heart” of the Republican party was in the West and his obligation was to address western concerns. “There is no war on the West and there is no Sagebrush Rebellion,” he explained. “It has been defused.” Ultimately, these administrative reforms, which eased the regulatory burdens imposed by the federal government, helped temper the sagebrush rebellion. Instead of gaining title to the federal lands, the sagebrush rebels settled, at least temporarily, for the Reagan administration’s reforms, which promised to prioritize development, reduce federal oversight, and accommodate the states.[23]

These tensions within the conservative political opposition to federal environmental oversight help explain the mixed success of the Reagon administration’s public lands policies. Neither the sagebrush rebellion nor the Reagan administration ever aligned behind a political strategy that unsettled wilderness advocates’ claims or confidence in speaking for the public interest. Indeed, the countercampaign to the sagebrush rebellion and the Reagan administration was remarkably successful for national environmental groups, such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club. The wilderness leadership portrayed the sagebrush rebellion as a “land raid by big commodity interests,” an “assault on balanced multiple use,” and the work of big corporations with an economic stake in the future of the public lands—an effort of special interests, not grassroots citizens. Wilderness advocates did not want to be in the business of attacking the little guy—local ranchers, miners, or loggers. And thanks to Watt, they did not have to be. As Doug Scott of the Sierra Club explained, Watt provided a “unifying thread through many of our otherwise segmented and defensive political efforts.” Instead of getting tangled up in the particulars of wilderness reviews, the allocation of grazing permits, or the regulation of mining and the way such policies might adversely affect rural westerners and their communities, wilderness advocates could focus public attention on Watt, the Reagan administration, and their allegiances to industry.[24]

Watt became a lightning rod for the environmental movement’s opposition to the Reagan administration. National environmental groups consistently emphasized the conflict between Watt’s responsibilities as a public official and the private economic interests he often seemed to advance. The Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society gathered one million signatures for a petition supporting their “What’s Wrong? Watt’s Wrong!” campaign to oust the secretary. And the media focused unprecedented attention on Watt and the Reagan administration’s environmental policies, including public lands policies. The campaign energized the national environmental groups. Between 1979 and 1983, membership jumped from 48,000 to 100,000 at the Wilderness Society and 181,000 to 346,000 at the Sierra Club, and their budgets grew proportionately. The outpouring of public opposition in the early 1980s countered the claims of the sagebrush rebellion, blunted the most problematic of the Republicans’ policy initiatives, and forced Watt from office. Watt resigned in 1983 because of his own political missteps and sustained public opposition. And in the mid-1980s the wilderness movement built on the momentum of its countercampaign to push numerous wilderness designations through Congress. In 1981 Senate Republicans had tried to move legislation sharply restricting wilderness reviews and expediting development on the nation’s public lands (legislation that enjoyed the Reagan administration’s support). Meanwhile national wilderness advocates had worked closely with Rep. John Seiberling, an Ohio Democrat, to move alternate wilderness legislation, negotiated on a state-by-state basis, through the House in the early 1980s. When Senate Republicans’ efforts to short-circuit wilderness designations failed, that alternate model of compromise legislation became the most politically efficacious way to ease a deadlock over wilderness reviews for the national forests that had been initiated during the Carter administration. This political maneuvering, captained by Democrats in the House, attracted the support of moderate Republicans and forced Reagan into signing more wilderness legislation into law than any other president.[25]

Three points about the sagebrush rebellion and the debates over the public lands are relevant to the historical evolution of American environmental politics. First, the sagebrush rebellion was among the first populist antienvironmental movements in the post–World War II era, but it remained regional. Its opposition to environmental reform, framed primarily in the language of states’ rights and concerned with the public lands, never resonated with the New Right nationally. Second, with public attention focused on the claims to states’ rights and the interests of industry, rather than the interests of rural citizens, the sagebrush rebels and their allies in the Reagan administration were effectively dismissed as proponents of special interests, rather than the public interest. Rural westerners may have hoped to emphasize the injustice of federal oversight of the public lands and the threats it posed to their families and communities, but wilderness advocates in particular, and the environmental movement more generally, avoided such confrontations by targeting Watt, the Reagan administration, and their ties to industry.[26] Indeed, the national environmental community responded to the surge of opposition in the early 1980s with confidence and success. Its countercampaign limited conservative efforts to roll back federal environmental regulations. Third, this political formula distinguished the sagebrush rebellion from a later, more nuanced, and in some respects more effective antienvironmental campaign—the wise use movement—that reflected the evolving strategies of the New Right.

Wise Use and the New Right

In the early 1990s a new sight at town parades, county fairs, and rodeos across the West was a recreational vehicle or pickup truck displaying a banner reading “People for the West!—Fighting to Keep America Strong by Keeping Public Lands Open.” Beneath the banner was a card table featuring literature encouraging westerners to join forces in defense of access to the public lands. People for the West! argued that the best way to challenge environmental regulations was “an informed and intelligent public,” and it urged westerners to “get involved in the political process.” It made such involvement easy: Membership was $5. An annual conference trained local citizen leaders. When members organized ten local chapters in their state, they gained a seat on the national governing board. The organization openly acknowledged that its funding came from the mining industry—more than a hundred mining companies bankrolled its activities—but its announced purpose was to foster a grassroots campaign that engaged westerners in politics and supported traditional western communities. By the end of the decade, the organization claimed more than one hundred chapters in communities nationwide and thirty thousand members. The organization aimed to help each member “make a difference in the real world.” Although wise use was not the only hat the environmental opposition wore in the West during the 1980s and 1990s—the historian Jacqueline Switzer has studied the county supremacy and property rights movements—it was the wise use movement that gained the most media attention and caused wilderness advocates the most concern.[27]

Wise use marked a resurgence of populist resistance to the direction of public lands management in the late 1980s and early 1990s and growing concerns about the changing western economy. Between 1981 and 1988, as a result of the new wilderness reviews initiated in the 1970s, wilderness activists helped create or expand 285 wilderness areas. The area of the wilderness system in the lower-forty-eight states doubled. More important, starting in the early 1980s, national organizations such as the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council focused public attention on federal policies that subsidized such private activities as logging, grazing, and mining on the public lands and raised questions about the economics of public lands management. In the 1980s the West’s boom-and-bust resource industries entered an extended downturn. Jobs in the timber industry declined 26 percent, those in the mining industry 44 percent, and average pay in resource industries fell during the decade. Although the West’s changing economy may have resulted from broader structural shifts, such as increased competition from abroad or decreased labor needs in resource industries, for many westerners the most visible antagonists were the environmentalists with their lawsuits, legislation, and campaigns to protect the public lands. A T-shirt for sale in Oregon captured such frustrations. It featured the recipe for “Loggers’ Stew”; the ingredients included 4 spotted owls, 3 peregrine falcons, and “2 well-beaten environmentalists.”[28]

Many observers viewed wise use as little more than the sagebrush rebellion sporting a new cowboy hat. Indeed, beneath the brim of the hat, the activists looked the same. The wise use movement included a spectrum of rural westerners, local and state governments, and corporate interests, as had the sagebrush rebellion. But where the sagebrush rebellion had been reactionary and emphasized assertions of states’ rights, the wise use movement fostered citizens’ involvement and emphasized their claims to constitutional rights, including the rights to bear arms, to own private property, and to exercise political liberty. In contrast with the sagebrush rebellion, wise use succeeded in reformulating antienvironmental politics in the late 1980s—deflecting attention from the vested interests of the states and industry and placing aggrieved western citizens at the center of its campaigns. Wise use aimed to cast itself as a social movement centered on citizens and their rights. Wise use activists emphasized that they had a right to bear arms in national parks, to access private property surrounded by national parks and wilderness areas, and to graze cattle on the public lands. As the Northwest Legal Foundation argued, it was time to hold the federal government “accountable for [its] unlawful infringements on constitutional and statutory rights.” Environmentalists at the time and scholars since have criticized wise use for its dependence on the funds and support of industry, large landowners, and other powerful interests—ties that belie its claims to be a social movement. But those critiques did not distract wise use from its emphasis on citizen engagement and grassroots organizing. Indeed, wise use tracked broader shifts in the political strategies of the New Right. Elsewhere in the country, conservatives had already begun to shift attention away from old issues, such as race and states’ rights, and toward positive rights-based claims of individuals. That is, instead of positioning themselves against something, they portrayed their conservatism as for something—and something resonant for many Americans. In the West the new strategy unsettled the political dynamics that had sustained public lands advocacy since the 1960s and underscored questions about who spoke for the public interest.[29]

Wise use staked a rhetorical claim to the mainstream of American environmentalism. The movement’s seminal publication was The Wise Use Agenda: The Citizen’s Policy Guide to Environmental Resource Issues (1989). The book was edited by Alan M. Gottlieb, founder of a small western think tank, the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise. It featured an introduction by Ron Arnold, a former member of the Sierra Club, self-proclaimed environmental maverick, and wise use leader. Arnold emphasized that wise use was dominated neither by “single-minded preservationists” nor “apologists for industrial development.” Instead, he argued, wise use was representative “of a new balance, of a middle way between extreme environmentalism and extreme industrialism.” Where the sagebrush rebellion opposed environmentalism outright, wise use promoted environmental reforms that purported to protect “ecology and economy.” Much of its policy agenda, however, opposed existing environmental regulations and promoted legislation that guaranteed access to the public lands for mining, logging, grazing, and motorized recreation, “strengthened” communities in the rural West, and protected private property rights. Just as the Wilderness Act protected wilderness, draft legislation to create a national mining system, a national timber harvest system, and a national rangeland grazing system would do the same for those industries. As outlined in The Wise Use Agenda, the movement aimed to reduce the scope of federal environmental regulations, expand opportunities for economic development, and safeguard individuals’ constitutional rights while promoting a “New Environmentalism” that respected people and nature. In the words of the president of the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Alan M. Gottlieb, “Wise Use will be the environmentalism of the 21st century.”[30]

Wise use reflected the increasingly well-oiled gears of citizen organizing on the political right. Just as other conservative social movements had borrowed strategies from citizen movements on the left, wise use adapted the organizing strategies that had been effective for wilderness advocates to advance its agenda. Where the sagebrush rebellion generally worked at the state level and invested its energies in the incoming Reagan administration, wise use developed an institutional infrastructure to coordinate activities across the West, with an emphasis on local activism. Many of the organizations affiliated with wise use described themselves as community-based grassroots groups that aimed to protect the rural way of life important to the West. As the Oregon Lands Coalition explained, it embraced a “grassroots ‘bottom up’ philosophy,” that left the “control and project work in the communities.” Behind such local groups was a coordinated national effort—linked by fax machines, direct mail operations, and national coalitions—to involve local conservative citizens in public lands policies. One of the most enthusiastic champions of the citizen-oriented efforts was Chuck Cushman, a property rights activist, the founder of the National Inholders Association, and a leader of wise use. His office was armed with nine fax machines to communicate with eighteen hundred groups and eight thousand key individuals nationwide. As Cushman explained, “We teach peaceful activism, participation in the public process, [and] competition on a political playing field. I like this stuff. We have fun.” Through the leadership of regional organizations, including Alliance for America, Multiple Use and Inholders Association, Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise, Blue Ribbon Coalition, Mountain States Legal Foundation, Pacific Legal Foundation, and Western States Public Lands Coalition, wise use succeeded in drawing national political and media attention to its concerns.[31]

Dick Carver, photographed here in January 1995 at the Win Back the West rally in Alturas, California, was a leader of the wise use movement. [+]

Dick Carver, photographed here in January 1995 at the Win Back the West rally in Alturas, California, was a leader of the wise use movement. Carver and other wise use activists argued that federal public lands policies infringed on individual rights guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution, a copy of which Carver carried in his breast pocket. Courtesy Jon Christensen and High Country News.

What most distinguished the wise use movement from the sagebrush rebellion was its emphasis on defending the basic constitutional rights of Americans. Such concerns, present in the sagebrush rebellion, pervaded the wise use movement. Dick Carver, a Nevada resident and wise use leader, explained, “we get called Sagebrush Rebels, but we’re as far from the Sagebrush Rebellion as you can get.” Carver carried a copy of the Constitution in his breast pocket. Wise use advocates argued that they had a right to hunt and bear arms on public lands. Snowmobilers and enthusiasts for four-wheel-drive vehicles claimed a right to access the public lands for their enjoyment. And, most often, the wise use movement highlighted the threat that public lands policies posed to property rights, including real estate, grazing permits, and water rights. In this view federal policies that protected wilderness areas, reduced grazing allocations, or resulted in new claims to water resources could diminish the value of private property adjacent to, or in the case of grazing, on public lands, resulting in “takings” that required just compensation by the government. As Fly-In for Freedom, one wise use group, warned, “Private property rights, guaranteed to each of us by the Constitution, are being jeopardized by laws intended to protect the environment.” Recent scholarship on the sun belt and opposition to civil rights measures there has suggested that the rise of modern conservatism involved broad political claims rooted in rights-based activism and a sense of “middle-class entitlement” that mobilized conservative citizens, not just reactionary antifederal politics organized around issues such as race. The historian Kevin Michael Kruse has most effectively made this point, noting that whether in the South or elsewhere, the political coherence and success of the New Right did not depend on rallying the troops around old phobias, like race and Communism. Instead, he argued, as early as the 1960s conservatives adopted a new language that privileged their own positive rights-based claims to individual liberty and property—the “right” to choose their neighbors, their children’s classmates, and as Kruse noted, most important, the “‘right’ to remain free from what they saw as dangerous encroachments by the federal government.” This strategy, emphasizing rights, pursued through grassroots activism, and staking a rhetorical claim to the middle ground, helped align wise use with a rights-based politics nationally dominant in the 1980s and 1990s and central to the rise of modern conservatism.[32]

Much as the political strategies of the New Right proved problematic for liberal Democratic politics in general, the wise use movement proved problematic for wilderness advocates. One leader described wise use as a “wake-up call” for a wilderness movement that had lost touch with the rural West. Since the 1970s the national environmental movement had undergone an organizational transformation, well documented by historians, toward professional lobbying, scientific and economic analyses of natural resource policies, and national media campaigns. What distinguished the more professionalized environmental movement was a diminished commitment to working with citizen activists and a changed approach to representing the public interest. In the wilderness movement, the emphasis shifted from the populist, citizen-oriented strategies of the 1960s and 1970s to professional strategies, as national organizations in Washington, D.C., made the case for public lands protection through economic analyses and scientific research. As public lands protection grew in scope and became dominated by technical analyses in the wake of nepa and as environmental groups faced sharp criticism during the Reagan administration, environmentalists assumed that such empirical arguments and legal strategies, rather than personal testimony and moral convictions, were the most effective way to advance their cause. Although the transition came late to the Wilderness Society, it was dramatic when it did. In the late 1970s, under the guidance of a new executive director, William Turnage, the organization reinvented itself as a professional environmental lobby. And starting in the mid-1980s, working with other national groups, it launched campaigns that challenged “below-cost” resource development on the public lands.[33]

Those changes in the organization of the national wilderness movement and the scope of its policy goals were important to the evolution of wise use. Drawing on scientific and economic arguments, the wilderness movement began to challenge economic development on the public lands and, by extension, the role of resource industries in the West. Pointing to economic studies that showed much resource development on the public lands took place at a net loss to the federal treasury and to scientific studies that assigned increased value to the protection of biodiversity, the wilderness movement suggested sharply reducing or in some cases ending logging, grazing, and mining on the public lands. These complementary economic and scientific arguments, broached in the 1980s, came to the fore in 1993 during the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton’s secretary of the interior, Bruce Babbitt, a former governor of Arizona and president of the League of Conservation Voters, promised that the administration would usher in a new era in public lands management. In his words, not only was it time for miners, timber companies, ranchers, and water users to pay their “fair share” for access to the public lands, it was time for the nation to embrace a “new American land ethic” that emphasized the ecological value of the nation’s public lands. Briefly, during Clinton’s first year in office, it appeared that such a sweeping goal—backed by scientific research and economic analysis—might transform the management of the federal lands. But those initiatives quickly became mired in the partisan politics of the 1990s. Nonetheless, those efforts exemplified the changed strategies of the wilderness movement. New arguments for protection of public lands, grounded in professional expertise and empirical research, formed the centerpiece of what wise use advocates described as the environmentalists’ new “War on the West.”[34]

It was in this changing context that the national wilderness movement sought to counter the wise use movement in the early 1990s. Publicly, the Wilderness Society responded by comparing wise use to the sagebrush rebellion. In one fund-raising letter, it dismissed wise use as a “slick public relations campaign” bankrolled by industry. “The last time we saw a posse like this it was the early 1980s and Ronald Reagan’s Interior Secretary, James Watt, was riding at its head.” But privately wise use provoked uncertainty and introspection among wilderness activists. Leaders of the Wilderness Society worried that the organization was being “out-gunned” in the media and “over-powered” at government hearings; still more troubling, it was losing “hearts and minds” in the rural West. It became difficult for the Wilderness Society to argue for reducing logging or mining, no matter how carefully researched its claims, when its policy recommendations aroused the populist outcry of wise use. The public affairs director at the Wilderness Society noted that “a good editorial”—the organization’s more professional strategy—“does not necessarily outweigh a lively picture and story about the miners, loggers, ranchers, and their families who turned out for last night’s march, on the front page.” Just such organizing characterized People for the West! To some it appeared that the Wilderness Society had become too professional and disconnected from western concerns, rural communities, and citizen activists—that the organization’s professional strategies may have strengthened its credibility in Washington, D.C., but narrowed its political constituency. In the early 1980s, in response to the sagebrush rebellion, wilderness advocates had expressed few such concerns either publicly or privately. At that time national groups such as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club countered the emerging opposition with conviction. But in the early 1990s, the internal reaction to wise use among environmental leaders was different. As one insider argued, “These folks [wise use] have legitimate concerns, and if we don’t honestly understand that, or if we have no sympathy for them, then we really are the elitist snobs they say we are.”[35]

Not only internal changes in the strategies of national environmental groups but also changes in national politics explain the potency of wise use. The political synergy of wise use and the Republican party in the West played a supporting role in the conservative Republican takeover of Congress in the mid-1990s, which brought a quick close to the Clinton administration’s public lands agenda. That agenda had been a focal point in congressional races across the West in 1994. On the stump, veteran Republican senators, such as Slade Gorton of Washington and Conrad Burns of Montana, and candidates for the House, such as Helen Chenoweth in Idaho and Cy Jamison in Montana, evoked the “War on the West” in their campaigns. They targeted the proposed grazing, mining, and water reforms important to the administration’s “New West” campaign, the administration’s successful efforts to advance gun control, the green leanings of Secretary of the Interior Babbitt, and the administration’s strong ties to the environmental community. Their strategy seemed to dovetail with the Republican party’s national strategies. Republicans had rallied around the “Contract with America,” which promised to get “Washington off our backs,” to roll back “bureaucratic red tape,” and to promote small business entrepreneurship—“the heart and soul of our economy.” Wise use activists saw an opportunity in the 1994 elections. People for the West! urged its members to “vote for public lands access, jobs, rural communities, and a resourceful america—don’t accept anything less.” Most important, “Vote in 1994.” Although not all wise use candidates won their campaigns—Gorton, Burns, and Chenoweth did, but Jamison lost—such voter mobilization and wise use activism helped propel Republicans to majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1955. Washington State demonstrated the political reversal dramatically: In 1992 it elected 8 Democrats and 1 Republican to the 103rd Congress; in 1994 it elected 7 Republicans and 2 Democrats to the 104th. One journalist suggested, “One could argue that the rest of the nation is coming around to the mood of [the West] rather than we following the national trend.”[36]

The new Republican majorities in the House and Senate in the 104th Congress promised as sweeping a reversal in environmental policy as had the Reagan administration in the early 1980s. The Republicans’ Contract with America was an ambitious legislative agenda that included welfare reform, middle-class tax cuts, the line-item veto, and restrictions on unfunded mandates. Although the contract included few specific provisions regarding the environment, its proposals to streamline government regulation and new initiatives, such as legislation to address “takings,” would have sharply limited existing environmental regulations. Wilderness Society strategists warned that the “extremists in Congress are preparing to wage war on the environment.” The 104th Congress got off to a quick start. In the first one hundred days, House Republicans succeeded in passing nine of ten planks of the contract in an impressive display of party unity. But it quickly became apparent that the Republicans’ discipline did not extend to the Senate, which proved slow or unwilling to take up much of the contract, nor did it apply uniformly in the case of environmental reform. The Republicans’ efforts to weaken public lands protection, including undermining the wilderness system, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum exploration, and legislating policy favorable to mining and grazing, all stalled in the Senate or House, where they faced near-uniform opposition from Democrats, uncertain support from moderate Republicans, and veto threats from the president. By the end of 1995, it was evident that with a slim majority in Congress, the Republicans did not command the support needed to mount a frontal assault on existing environmental laws and regulations. But, as the New York Times editorialized, the Republicans’ most effective offensive against the “laws and regulations that protect America’s natural resources has been a masterpiece of legislative subterfuge.” Instead of posing a direct challenge, it “seductively” repackaged its agenda “as ‘deregulation,’ ‘property rights,’ and ‘balancing the budget.’” Indeed, conservative Republicans’ greatest policy success on public lands reform came through the congressional budget process. Western Republicans included a provision to expedite logging—the so-called salvage-logging rider—in the national forests in an emergency spending and rescissions bill in the summer of 1995. Such timber sales, which were exempted from many environmental requirements through 1996, accounted for 50 percent of Forest Service timber sales in fiscal years 1995 and 1996.[37]

In shaping policy, the wise use movement can be dismissed as a failure. Of its twenty-five goals—which included opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to petroleum exploration, reforming the Endangered Species Act, and guaranteeing industry access to the public lands—none became law. As the historian Richard White has noted, while wise use played well rhetorically, “hating the government [turns out] to be a tricky proposition in the West.” Indeed, wise use never addressed the paradox of the West’s deep and persistent dependence on the federal government. Yet, despite the failure of its policy agenda, the wise use movement was important in repositioning the Republican party. Since the late 1980s, the Republican party has gravitated toward a wise use formula in its approach to environmental politics. Instead of announcing the reactionary opposition to environmentalism that characterized the sagebrush rebellion, the Reagan administration, and the rhetoric of the “Specter of Environmentalism,” Republicans staked a new rhetorical claim to a middle ground on environmentalism in the 1990s. This was evident in the administration of George H. W. Bush, the self-proclaimed “environmental president,” who supported an amended Clean Air Act in 1990 but generally opposed strong environmental policies. In the fall of 1995, the Republican House majority leader, Tom Delay of Texas, reacted to his party’s failed environmental campaign at the start of the 104th Congress by spelling out the gop’s commitment to environmental reform. “Republicans support the goals of a safe and healthy environment,” modeling their approach to conservation after President Theodore Roosevelt’s, he explained. The goal of the 104th Congress was to “improve, not roll back, environmental protections.” That strategy was also apparent in George W. Bush’s first-term environmental agenda. Despite advancing aggressive antienvironmental proposals on topics from climate change to public lands protection, the Bush administration acknowledged the importance of environmental issues, emphasized its commitment to environmental protection, and promoted what it described as commonsense, forward-looking, and local solutions to environmental problems.[38]

To many observers, the election of George W. Bush and the appointment of Gale Norton as secretary of the interior heralded a return to the days of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James Watt, as this 2001 political cartoon by Steve Greenberg suggests. [+]

To many observers, the election of George W. Bush and the appointment of Gale Norton as secretary of the interior heralded a return to the days of Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James Watt, as this 2001 political cartoon by Steve Greenberg suggests. But the Bush administration had learned from the Republican party‚Äôs earlier failures. The public lands policy agenda it advanced resembled the Reagan administration’s, but it was disguised by more environmentally friendly rhetoric. Courtesy Steve Greenberg.

Environmentalists and scholars have consistently criticized such Republican rhetoric as political posturing. But that political strategy succeeded for wise use and more recent Republican opponents of environmental reform in precisely the arena where the earlier strategies of the sagebrush rebellion and the Reagan administration had failed. On the issue of the public lands, such rhetoric succeeded in undermining the political formula that aligned wilderness advocates with the public interest and their opponents with economic self-interest. By affirming environmental protection and a wise use approach to environmental reform and emphasizing the rights and interests of western citizens, proponents of wise use and their often Republican allies raised questions about the wilderness movement’s concern for the public interest—something the sagebrush rebellion, Watt, and Reagan never succeeded in doing. This achievement was apparent in the public’s mixed response to wise use. In the early 1980s the overt agenda of the sagebrush rebellion and the Reagan administration provoked a surge of political support and accelerated growth in the membership of such national groups as the Wilderness Society and Sierra Club. In the 1990s there was no such jump in political support or membership. Instead, the wilderness movement entered a sustained period of self-doubt regarding its constituencies (too narrow?), its agenda (too concerned with wilderness and the public lands?), and funding sources (too dependent on foundations?). For national wilderness advocates, the 1990s were defined by challenges, including wise use, new grassroots environmental activism, the environmental justice movement, and internal debates over the importance of wilderness to American environmentalism—all of which questioned the wilderness movement’s ability to speak for the public interest.[39] Thus, while the wise use movement failed to advance its policy agenda, it had lasting success in changing the politics of public lands protection; it blunted the wilderness movement’s moral authority and contributed to an ongoing political stalemate over the reform of public lands policies.


The debates over the public lands and the polarization of American environmental politics raise questions about two historical arguments: that environmental reform has enjoyed bipartisan political support and that environmental issues are marginal in American electoral politics.

In lamenting the partisanship in environmental politics today, historians often emphasize the bipartisan support for environmental reform in the 1960s and 1970s. The historian William Cronon has made this argument most publicly in an op-ed in the New York Times. Addressing the incoming Bush administration in 2001, Cronon emphasized the Republican party’s concern for the environment, which dated back to Theodore Roosevelt and was manifested by Richard Nixon, and he noted the failure of the Reagan administration’s antienvironmental policies. In his words, “until the 1980’s, Republicans could claim with considerable justification that their party’s environmental record was no less distinguished than that of the Democrats.”[40] It is true that major legislation, such as the Wilderness Act (1964), the Clean Air and Water amendments (1970 and 1972), the Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Superfund legislation (1980), enjoyed strong support. And Nixon signed into law much of the key environmental legislation in the early 1970s. Focusing on such moments of bipartisan support for environmental reform, however, risks obscuring a significant trajectory in American environmental politics.

Considering American environmental politics in its historical context—in this case, examining the political rhetoric, interest group politics, and shifts in national politics relevant to debates over the public lands in the West—reveals the persistent power of partisan difference and political opportunism in environmental politics. The Democratic leadership was able to command broad support for a liberal environmental agenda that emphasized the public interest in environmental reform and invested increased powers in the federal government through the late 1970s. But, as was apparent in regard to the public lands, the expansion of federal responsibilities for environmental protection provoked a surge of opposition from the Reagan administration and the populist sagebrush rebellion and wise use movement. This trend toward partisanship is substantiated by the political science literature: Analysis of voting patterns in Congress in the 1960s and 1970s highlights Democrats’ leadership on conservation and environmental issues and reveals consistent partisan division on such issues. Such partisanship only deepened in subsequent decades: Republicans voted for the environmental reform agenda 27 percent of the time in 1973, 19 percent in 1994, and 10 percent in 2004. In contrast, Democrats voted for the same agenda 56 percent, 68 percent, and 86 percent of the time, respectively.[41]

The enduring and growing partisan division in environmental politics does not mean that environmental concerns map neatly onto party politics. As historians have shown, that relationship is complex, and it is often affected as much by regional politics or personal concerns as by party affiliation. Many politicians have broken with their parties on environmental issues for such reasons. Examples include the leadership of the Republicans John Saylor of Pennsylvania on public lands protection in the 1960s and 1970s, John Chafee of Rhode Island on clean air and water legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, and, more recently, John McCain of Arizona and John Warner of Virginia on climate change legislation. And prominent Democrats, such as Wayne Aspinall of Colorado, who opposed the Wilderness Act, and John Dingell of Michigan, who has defended the automobile industry from increases in fuel efficiency standards, have slowed efforts to advance environmental reform.[42] But such exceptions do not negate the broader historical trend. At the national level, environmental politics has not shifted from bipartisan consensus to partisan division, as is often suggested, but from partisan to more partisan division.

The debates over the public lands and environmental politics thus played a supporting role in a central transition in postwar American politics: the decline of liberalism and the rise of modern conservatism. Observers of environmental politics, however, have generally agreed that, although Americans consistently rank environmental issues as important, historical polling data and election analyses show that in the voting booth they rank the environmental issues low relative to other political concerns.[43] For that reason, scholars have generally considered the environment a secondary issue, commanding insufficient attention from political candidates or parties to play a formative role in national politics. Yet that approach ignores the success with which the Republican party, beginning in the late 1970s, harnessed populist distrust of the federal government, the Democratic party, and the modern environmental regulatory state to a conservative agenda. In the West the most prominent organs of the federal government include the federal land agencies that oversee vast sweeps of the landscape. The consolidation of the Republican party’s political power at the national level was strengthened, particularly in the West, by the rise of popular opposition to public lands reform.

Thus, it is a mistake to view the environmental opposition as a political protest of limited importance that represents the behind-the-scenes work of industry or a narrow reaction to the political success of environmental advocates. The evolution of the environmental opposition, as seen in public lands debates in the West, represented the transformation of conservative political ideology away from a reactionary antifederal politics that emphasized what its adherents opposed toward a positive politics emphasizing individual rights. In the environmental opposition, starting in the 1970s, conservatives drew on new organizational networks of think tanks, industry groups, and citizen-oriented organizations, and they began to deploy new strategies and rhetoric that affirmed the rights of individuals to their property, to hunt and recreate, and to pursue happiness unencumbered by the federal government. Historians of modern conservatism have noted similar transformations in conservatism in other regions of America in the postwar era, including the urban East and the suburban sun belt. Although few elections turn on environmental issues, the transformation of the environmental opposition in the rural West formed part of the broader political ascendancy of modern conservatism in America that has defined both western and American postwar politics.

James Morton Turner is assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program at Wellesley College. For thoughtful comments on this essay, I am grateful to Drew Isenberg, Kevin Kruse, Daniel Rodgers, Adam Sowards, Patrick Wilson, Drew Levy, and the editors and referees for the Journal of American History. Readers may contact Turner at jturner at wellesley dot edu.

[1] Tim Peckinpaugh, Republican Study Committee, “Special Report: The Specter of Environmentalism,” 1982, folder 52, box 267, series 9, Sierra Club Records, banc mss 71/103 c (Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley); “Interview with James Watt,” Human Events, July 3, 1982.

[2] The classic study of the modern environmental movement is Samuel P. Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955–1985 (New York, 1987). See also Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Washington, 2005); Adam Rome, Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (New York, 2001); Hal K. Rothman, The Greening of a Nation? Environmentalism in the United States since 1945 (Fort Worth, 1998); and Victor B. Scheffer, The Shaping of Environmentalism in America (Seattle, 1991). Historians have given little attention to the environmental opposition, according to Samuel P. Hays, A History of Environmental Politics since 1945 (Pittsburgh, 2000), 109–21. On that opposition, see R. McGreggor Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger: The Sagebrush Rebellion and Environmental Politics (Lawrence, 1993); James McCarthy, “Environmentalism, Wise Use, and the Nature of Accumulation in the Rural West,” in Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium, ed. Bruce Baun and Noel Castree (New York, 1998), 126–49; Jacqueline Vaughn Switzer, Green Backlash: The History and Politics of Environmental Opposition in the U.S. (Boulder, 1997); and David Helvarg, The War against the Greens: The Wise-Use Movement, the New Right, and Anti-environmental Violence (San Francisco, 1994).

[3] For the distinction between “old” conservation issues and “new” environmental issues, or “first-” and “second-” generation issues, see Robert Cameron Mitchell, Angela A. Mertig, and Riley E. Dunlap, “Twenty Years of Environmental Mobilization: Trends among National Environmental Organizations,” in American Environmentalism: The U.S. Environmental Movement, 1970–1990, ed. Riley E. Dunlap and Angela G. Mertig (Washington, 1992), 13–14; Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution: The Environmental Movement, 1962–1992 (New York, 1993), 14, 18; Stephen Fox, The American Conservation Movement: John Muir and His Legacy (Madison, 1981), 291–92; Hays, Beauty, Health, and Permanence, 13–39; Philip Shabecoff, Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century (Washington, 2000), 3–7; and Scott Hamilton Dewey, Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945–1970 (College Station, 2000), 1.

[4] On western political history, its complexities, and the importance of the West to the rise of the New Right, see Alan Brinkley, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” American Historical Review, 99 (April 1994), 409–29; Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman, 2001), 370–82, 576, 604; Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001); Daniel Kemmis, This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the American West (Washington, 2001), 103–35; and Jennifer Burns, “O Libertarian, Where Is Thy Sting?,” Journal of Policy History, 19 (Fall 2007), 452–70.

[5] For the full taxonomy of liberalism drawn on here, see Alan Brinkley, The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War (New York, 1996), 8–11. On the environmental movement and the Great Society, see Adam Rome, “‘Give Earth a Chance’: The Environmental Movement and the Sixties,” Journal of American History, 90 (Sept. 2003), 527–34.

[6] Wilderness Act, P.L. 16 U.S.C. sec. 2(a) (1964). The Wilderness Act required the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service to undertake a ten-year wilderness review process that included an agency review at the local and national levels, local public hearings, recommendations to the president, and a presidential recommendation to Congress. In 1964 the Wilderness Act required reviews of approximately 60 million acres. In the 1970s wilderness advocates expanded the reviews to include additional national forest land, federal lands in Alaska, and the public domain overseen by the Bureau of Land Management in the lower forty-eight states. An important exception to the emphasis on the national interest was the call made in William O. Douglas, A Wilderness Bill of Rights (New York, 1965). On the commitment to individual rights inspiring that call, see Adam M. Sowards, “William O. Douglas’s Wilderness Politics: Public Protest and Committees of Correspondence in the Pacific Northwest,” Western Historical Quarterly, 37 (Spring 2006), 21–42.

[7] On the campaign for the Wilderness Act, see Mark Harvey, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act (Seattle, 2005), 186–223; and Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, 2001), 200–237. In 1962 the federal government produced a report on the nation’s recreational resources and public lands that was important to the debates over the Wilderness Act. See Wildland Research Center, Wilderness and Recreation: A Report on Resources, Values, and Problems (Washington, 1962).

[8] Stewart L. Udall, “To Save the Wonder of Wilderness,” New York Times Sunday Magazine, May 27, 1962, p. 13; Michael Nadel, “The Wilderness Act’s Land Requirements,” Living Wilderness (Autumn–Winter 1962), 45.

[9] On the political history of the Wilderness Act, particularly the roles of Wayne Aspinall and John Saylor, see Thomas G. Smith, Green Republican: John Saylor and the Preservation of America’s Wilderness (Pittsburgh, 2006), 158–79; Harvey, Wilderness Forever, 224–43; and Steven C. Schulte, Wayne Aspinall and the Shaping of the American West (Boulder, 2002), 130–62.

[10] Stewart M. Brandborg, “The Wilderness Act in Practice: The First Three Years,” April 7, 1967, folder 10, box 136, series 2.30, Sierra Club National Legislative Office Papers, banc mss 71/289 c (Bancroft Library). The strategy of the Wilderness Society is reflected in its archives, congressional wilderness hearings, and its magazine, the Living Wilderness. See “Cogs and Levers,” Living Wilderness, 37 (Winter 1974), 5.

[11] On one of the few demonstrations organized in support of public lands protection, an effort in the late 1960s to protect French Pete near Eugene, Oregon, see Kevin R. Marsh, Drawing Lines in the Forest: Creating Wilderness Areas in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle, 2007), 113–17. On the emphasis on working through the political system in campaigns for clean air and clean water legislation in the 1960s and early 1970s, see Dewey, Don’t Breathe the Air, 135–57; and Paul Charles Milazzo, Unlikely Environmentalists: Congress and Clean Water, 1945–1972 (Lawrence, 2006), 139–62.

[12] On the transformation of liberal politics, see Brinkley, End of Reform, 8–11; Maurice Isserman and Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (New York, 2004), 47–66, 269–300; and Terry H. Anderson, The Sixties (New York, 1999), 181–209.

[13] Douglas W. Scott, “Student Activism on Environmental Crisis,” Living Wilderness, 34 (Spring 1970), 8; Edward P. Morgan, The Sixties Experience: Hard Lessons about Modern America (Philadelphia, 1991), 12. Accounts that emphasize the radical or countercultural origins of the “new” environmental movement, include ibid., 231–42; Fox, American Conservation Movement, 322–26; Christopher J. Bosso, “Adaptation and Change in the Environmental Movement,” in Interest Group Politics, ed. Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis (Washington, 1991), 151–54; and Bruce J. Schulman, The Seventies: The Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics (New York, 2001), 88–91.

[14] See J. Brooks Flippen, Nixon and the Environment (Albuquerque, 2000). None of the legislation makes specific reference to the rights of people to a clean environment or to the rights of nature. Most often the laws refer to the value of protecting the “public health and welfare.” See the Wilderness Act, P.L. 16 U.S.C. 1131 (1964); Air Pollution Prevention and Control Act, P.L. 42 U.S.C. (1967); National Environmental Policy Act, P.L. 42 U.S.C. 4321 (1970); Clean Air Amendments, P.L. 42 U.S.C. 7401 (1970); and Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments, P.L. 33 U.S.C. 1251 (1970). Nixon vetoed the Federal Water Pollution Control amendments, but his veto was overridden with bipartisan support. See Flippen, Nixon and the Environment, 182–83. Edmund Muskie, “A Whole Society,” in Earth Day: The Beginning, ed. Steve Cotton (New York, 1970), 92. Edmund Muskie did draw on rights-based arguments in his political support for clean air and water. But in the official compilation of Earth Day speeches, only one of fifty speakers placed particular emphasis on rights-based political claims. For the exception, a lawyer and founder of the Environmental Defense Fund, see Victor J. Yannacone, “Sue the Bastards,” in ibid., 205–15.

[15] Ted Stevens, “Speech before the League for Advancement of States’ Equal Rights,” Nov. 21, 1980, folder 11, box 224, series 69, Sierra Club Members Papers, banc mss 71/295 c (Bancroft Library). On the expansion of wilderness reviews in the 1970s, see James Morton Turner, “The Politics of Modern Wilderness,” in American Wilderness: A New History, ed. Michael Lewis (New York, 2007).

[16] “The Big Federal Land Grab,” Conservative Digest, 4 (Dec. 1978), 7–11; June Allen and Matt Hammer, “Free Alaska,” song, 1980, folder 6, box 3, Harry Crandell Papers (Denver Public Library, Denver, Colo.); “Marching Again,” Fairbanks News-Miner, Dec. 18, 1978, clipping, ibid.; Boise Cascade Advertisement, “. . . a Voice, Crying in the Wilderness,” Boise Idaho Statesman, April 9, 1972, clipping, ibid.; Jim Santini in U.S. Congress, House, Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Sagebrush Rebellion: Impacts on Energy and Minerals, 96 Cong., 2 sess., Nov. 22, 1980, pp. 2–3. On the history of the sagebrush rebellion, see Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger; Switzer, Green Backlash, 171–90; and C. Brant Short, Ronald Reagan and the Public Lands: America’s Conservation Debate (College Station, 1989).

[17] On debates over property rights, states’ rights, and other political claims important to public lands politics, see Karen R. Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meanings: Ranchers, the Government, and the Property between Them (Berkeley, 2002). On the influence of a western “liberal sensibility,” see Burns, “O Libertarian, Where Is Thy Sting?,” 464–66.

[18] Las Cruces Jeep Club, “The Creeping Wilderness Is About to Run Over You!,” bumper sticker, Dec. 1978, Rupert Cutler Papers (Jimmy Carter Library, Atlanta, Ga.); Michael Kazin, “The Grass-Roots Right: New Histories of U.S. Conservatism in the Twentieth Century,” American Historical Review, 97 (Feb. 1992), 136–55. On corporate ties, see Richard Reid, “Handwritten Notes on the rare ii Symposium,” Aug. 19–20, 1978, box 47, Western Timber Association Records (Forest History Society, Durham, N.C.); Joseph Coors, “Letter to Concerned Coloradoan,” 1980, folder 29, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records, cons 130, Conservation Collection (Denver Public Library).

[19] Orrin Hatch, “Questions and Answers Regarding Public Lands Reform Act of 1981,” 1981, folder 11, box 273, Alan K. Simpson Papers (University of Wyoming, Laramie); Bureau of Land Management, Public Land Statistics (Washington, 1980). On the politics of individual states, see Switzer, Green Backlash, 180–82. Russ Donley, Wyoming state legislator, in Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Sagebrush Rebellion, 7–8. On the political claims of the sagebrush rebellion, see Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger, 92–122.

[20] For party representation in the Senate, see Statistics and Lists, United States Senate, Senate Service Records, On the ideological commitments of the new cohort of Republican senators in the late 1970s and early 1980s, see Thomas Byrne Edsall, The New Politics of Inequality (New York, 1984), 67–106.

[21] For the statement by Steven Symms, see Philip Shabecoff, “Issue and Debate Easing Federal Control of Public Land,” New York Times, Feb. 10, 1981, p. A21. Curtis Wilkie, “In West, Liberals Fight Back,” Boston Globe, Oct. 20, 1980, p. 1.

[22] For a sympathetic account, see Ron Arnold, At the Eye of the Storm: James Watt and the Environmentalists (Washington, 1982). James Watt, “Address to Conference of National Park Concessionaires,” March 9, 1981, folder 19, box 36, series 5, Wilderness Society Records; James Watt, “Remarks Before the 45th North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference,” March 23, 1981, folder 9, box 11, James Watt Papers (University of Wyoming); Wilderness Society, “Statement of Reasons for Opposition to Nomination of James G. Watt,” 1981, folder 23, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records; Coors, “Letter to Concerned Coloradoan”; Stevens, “Speech before the League for Advancement of States’ Equal Rights”; James Watt, “Interview on cnn,” March 27, 1982, folder 29, box 36, series 5, Wilderness Society Records.

[23] On the Reagan administration’s public lands initiatives, see Cawley, Federal Land, Western Anger, 113–18; Rothman, Greening of a Nation?, 174–80, 186–89; and Jeffrey K. Stine, “Natural Resources and Environmental Policy,” in The Reagan Presidency: Pragmatic Conservatism and Its Legacies, ed. W. Eliot Brownlee and Hugh Davis Graham (Lawrence, 2003), 236–39. Several of the administrative initiatives were successfully challenged in the courts. “Interview with James Watt.”

[24] Dave Foreman, “Memo re: Sagebrush Rebellion and Public Land Grazing Issues,” Aug. 30, 1979, folder “Issues: Sagebrush Rebellion, 1979–1980,” box 30B, series 4, Colorado Environmental Coalition Papers (Denver Public Library); “Proceedings of Sagebrush Rebellion ‘Counterinsurgency’ Conference, Denver,” Oct. 26–27, 1979, folder 16, box 8, series 1, Wilderness Society Records; Doug Scott, “Status of Major Conservation Campaigns,” Aug. 31, 1981, folder 16, box 257, series 9.3, Sierra Club Records.

[25] Sierra Club, “Watt Petition,” April 5, 1981, folder 10, box 36, series 5, Wilderness Society Records. For membership statistics, see Mitchell, Mertig, and Dunlap, “Twenty Years of Environmental Mobilization,” 13. On James Watt’s resignation, see folder 16, box 10, Watt Papers. Between 1977 and 1979 the Forest Service undertook a review of 62 million acres of roadless national forests to meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act. It then recommended wilderness designation for 15 million acres of land and multiple-use management for 36 million acres and left 11 million acres in a further planning category. Between 1980 and 1982 most legislative proposals to act on these recommendations met with congressional gridlock. Conservative Republicans pushed legislation to accelerate the time frame for wilderness designation and to limit future reviews. Democrats and their environmental allies pushed a state-by-state solution that protected some roadless areas as wilderness, released undesignated land for multiple-use management, and avoided any long-term limits on future wilderness reviews. On the Republican legislative initiatives, see “rare ii National ‘Release’ Expected,” Public Land News, April 2, 1981, p. 3. On compromise state-by-state legislation, see boxes 24 and 30, series 3, Crandell Papers. Although Jimmy Carter protected the greatest amount of federal land as wilderness, Ronald Reagan signed into law the largest number of wilderness bills (44 bills protecting approximately 11.6 million acres). See “Public Laws Affecting America’s Wilderness Database,”,

[26] The Wilderness Society compiled a two-volume brief on Watt, the Reagan administration, and its antienvironmental agenda: “The Watt Book,” 1981, boxes 35–37, series 5, Wilderness Society Records.

[27] People for the West!, “Grassroots Activism Tells Rural America’s Story,” 1993, folder 7, box 3, series 12, ibid.; Ralph Noyes, Western States Public Lands Coalition, “Three Steps We Can Take To Help Save Public Lands Multiple Use,” Jan. 1993, ibid.; People for the West!, “New Chapters in Denver, Colorado Springs,” 1993, ibid.; People for the West!, “The Rush Is On!,” 1994, ibid.; People for the West!, “The Campaign for the Western Mining Community,” 1989, ibid.; Heidi Walters, “People for the usa! Disbands,” High Country News, Dec. 18, 2000; People for the West!, “Wise Use Leadership Conference,” 1992, folder 39, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records; Switzer, Green Backlash, 171–280. The wise use movement also spawned more radical, sometimes violent, activities, on its fringe. On such extremism, see Helvarg, War against the Greens.

[28] For the number of new and expanded wilderness areas, see “Search Wilderness Data,”, For statistics on employment in western resources industries, see Thomas M. Power and Richard N. Barrett, Post-Cowboy Economics: Pay and Prosperity in the New American West (Washington, 2001), 54, 77. On the T-shirt, see John Lancaster, “Drawing the Line on West’s Wilderness,” Washington Post, April 23, 1991, p. 1.

[29] T. H. Watkins, “Wise Use: Discouragements and Clarifications,” in Let the People Judge: Wise Use and the Private Property Rights Movement, ed. John D. Echeverria and Ray Booth Eby (Washington, 1995), 45; Northwest Legal Foundation, “Letter to President Bush,” in The Wise Use Agenda: The Citizen’s Policy Guide to Environmental Resource Issues, ed. Alan M. Gottlieb (Bellevue, 1989), 143–44. On the political context of wise use, see Phil Brick, “Determined Opposition: The Wise Use Movement Challenges Environmentalism,” in Landmark Essays on Rhetoric and the Environment, ed. Craig Waddell (Mahwah, 1998), 195–208; McCarthy, “Environmentalism, Wise Use, and the Nature of Accumulation in the Rural West,” 126–49; and Gundars Rudzitis, Wilderness and the Changing American West (New York, 1996), 145–49. On the political strategies of the New Right, see Kevin Michael Kruse, White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism (Princeton, 2005), 8–9; and McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 166.

[30] Gottlieb, ed., Wise Use Agenda; Ron Arnold, “Introduction,” ibid., ix–xiii, esp. x; “The Top Twenty-five Goals,” ibid., 10–15; Alan M. Gottlieb, “Preface,” ibid., xvii–xx.

[31] Oregon Lands Coalition, “The olc Network—It’s Working,” Oct. 30, 1990, folder 4, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records; Chuck Cushman, “Roundtable at the Society of Environmental Journalists on Wise Use,” Nov. 19, 1992, folder 16, box 10, series 5, ibid. For a list of organizations involved in wise use, see Wilderness Impact Research Foundation, “1988 National Wilderness Conference,” 1988, folder 8, box 3, series 12, ibid.

[32] For Dick Carver’s statement, see Jon Christensen, “Nevada’s Most Rebellious,” High Country News, Oct. 30, 1995, On the strategic mistakes of the sagebrush rebellion, see Wayne Hage, Storm over Rangelands: Private Rights in Federal Lands (Bellevue, 1989). Wise use advocates claimed grazing permits represented a private property right, since they are transferred with privately owned ranches. See, for example, ibid., 3. Such claims have never been recognized by the courts, but they have been central to political debates over public lands management. See Merrill, Public Lands and Political Meaning. The emphasis on rights is evident in Blue Ribbon Coalition, “Don’t Be Locked Out, Fight Back!,” 1991, folder 13, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records. Fly-In for Freedom, “Press Packet: Fly-In for Freedom,” Sept. 21, 1992, ibid. On the turn toward a rights-based politics and the conservative Right, see Kruse, White Flight, 5–11. See also Michael Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton, 2006), 301–23; Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, 1996), 209–30; and McGirr, Suburban Warriors, 176.

[33] Jim Norton, “Monthly Report,” March 10, 1992, folder 9, box 17, series 9, Wilderness Society Records. For examples of such technical analyses, see Peter M. Emerson et al., Wasting the National Forests: Selling Timber below Cost (Washington, 1984); and David Wilcove, National Forests: Policies for the Future, Protecting Biological Diversity (Washington, 1989).

[34] Bruce Babbitt, “Remarks to the National Press Club,” April 27, 1993, folder 47, box 10, series 5, Wilderness Society Records. On environmental politics in the 1990s, see Christopher McGrory Klyza and David Sousa, American Environmental Policy, 1990–2006: Beyond Gridlock (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), 47–98.

[35] “Sample Letter to Wilderness Society Members re: Wise Use,” Oct. 1, 1992, folder 3, box 2, series 5, Wilderness Society Records; Jim Baca, “Memo to tws Governing Council re: People for the West!,” Oct. 1, 1991, folder 23, box 16, series 12, ibid.; Mary Hanley, “Memo re: Wise (Use) Guys,” Nov. 22, 1991, folder 13, box 3, ibid.; “Memo re: Wise Use Leadership Conference,” June 15, 1992, folder 39, ibid.

[36] Joel Connelly, “Republicans Draw Battle Line in Western States,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Oct. 22, 1994, p. A1; Rob Eure, “‘Wise Use’ Movement Gains Foothold,” Portland Oregonian, Nov. 3, 1994, p. A1; Jim Simon, “Gorton Stumping Far from King County,” Seattle Times, Nov. 6, 1994, p. B1; Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, Contract with America (New York, 1994), 125; People for the West!, “Election ’94 Presents Opportunities,” 1993, folder 7, box 3, series 12, Wilderness Society Records. On the shift in western politics, see Joel Connelly, “Republican House Members Hone Axes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dec. 30, 1994, p. A1. On the importance of the West, see Rocky Barker, “Disgusted with Politics, Voters Turn to gop,” Idaho Falls Post Register, Nov. 6, 1994, p. B1.

[37] Gingrich and Armey, Contract with America. On the Republicans’ strategies on public lands and environmental issues in the 104th Congress, see Klyza and Sousa, American Environmental Policy, 55–62, 71–82, 114–16. Jerry Greenberg, “Memo re: Takings Information,” Dec. 29, 1994, folder 13, box 17, series 9, Wilderness Society Records; “The G.O.P.’s War on Nature,” New York Times, May 31, 1995, p. A20; U.S. Forest Service, National Summary: Forest Management Program Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1996 (Washington, 1997).

[38] Wise Use, “Top Twenty-five Goals,” 10–15; Richard White, “The Current Weirdness in the West,” Western Historical Quarterly, 28 (Spring 1997), 15. The Clean Air Act of 1990 marked an important step toward market-based environmental regulation. On George H. W. Bush’s record more generally, see National Democratic Party, “The Environmental President? This Guy Must Be Kidding,” Sept. 16, 1991, folder 46, box 45, series 5, Wilderness Society Records. Tom Delay, “Letter to Republican Colleagues,” Oct. 17, 1995, folder 15, box 17, series 9, ibid. On the Republican party’s changing approach to environmental issues in the West, see Kemmis, This Sovereign Land, 203–34.

[39] In the mid-1990s the Wilderness Society undertook a review of its structure, goals, and policies that is manifest in the organization’s archives. One prominent critic of the Wilderness Society and the mainstream environmental movement in the mid-1990s was Alexander Cockburn of the Nation. See, for example, Alexander Cockburn, “The Green Betrayers,” Nation, Feb. 6, 1995, p. 157. Scholars have also questioned the strategies of wilderness advocates and the mainstream environmental movement. See J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, eds., The Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens, Ga., 1998); William Cronon, ed., Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York, 1995); and Mark Dowie, Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century (Cambridge, Mass., 1995).

[40] William Cronon, “When the G.O.P. Was Green,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 2001, p. 17. For examples of similar arguments, see Rothman, Greening of a Nation?, 96–98; Shabecoff, Earth Rising, 5–6; and Doug Scott, The Enduring Wilderness: Protecting Our Heritage through the Wilderness Act (Golden, 2004), 76–77, 116, 147.

[41] Julius Turner and Edward V. Schneier Jr., Party and Constituency: Pressures on Congress (Baltimore, 1970); Riley E. Dunlap and Michael Patrick Allen, “Partisan Differences on Environmental Issues: A Congressional Roll-Call Analysis,” Western Political Quarterly, 29 (Sept. 1976), 384–97. Data on partisanship since 1973 are based on my review and analysis of the League of Conservation Voters’ annual record of votes on environmental issues in the House of Representatives. “Past National Environmental Scorecards,” League of Conservation Voters,

[42] Smith, Green Republican; Schulte, Wayne Aspinall and the Shaping of the American West; J. Brooks Flippen, Conservative Conservationist: Russell E. Train and the Emergence of American Environmentalism (Baton Rouge, 2006).

[43] The point generally holds for national elections. For arguments that “environmental issues seldom shape individual vote preference” and the environment is rarely an “important ‘swing’ issue” for most voters in federal elections, see Deborah Lynn Guber, “Voting Preferences and the Environment in the American Electorate,” Society and Natural Resources, 14 (July 2001), 455–69. See also Kraft, “Environmental Policy in Congress,” 132–33.