Maybe because the Sage Brush Rebellion coincided with the energy boom of the late 70’s and early 80’s when Western industrialists and developers were firmly in the saddle, its rhetoric rarely, if ever, achieved the intensity that Rocky Mountain politicians and other public spokesmen have used in denouncing the Clinton administration’s efforts to redesign the social, economic, and political structures of their region. “War on the West” is a phrase heard repeatedly from such sober and responsible Western representatives of both national parties as Republican Senator Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming and Governor Mike Sullivan (also of Wyoming and the first Democratic governor to endorse Bill Clinton’s bid for the presidency), who recently assured the Wyoming Woolgrowers’ Association, “If you think you’re suffering from paranoia, don’t worry about it. They really are out to get you,” adding that “the assault on public land issues is affecting culture values” of Westerners in general and the people of Wyoming in particular. Most dramatically, James Watt, Secretary of the Interior in Ronald Reagan’s first administration and a Wyoming native now residing in Jackson, warns that Westerners “are learning to fear our government.” At least one meeting of Western lawmakers has convened in recent weeks for the purpose of discussing the issue of states’ rights. While the word “secession” has yet to be spoken, there is no question that the Western mood is increasingly a rebellious one.
Parallels do exist between Washington’s current attack on the West and the assault by the northern states against the Southern ones that culminated in the Civil War. The environmentalist movement, some of whose cohorts advocate the extension of “rights” to trees, rocks, and mountains, has given the old Free Soil agenda new meaning: while the Bureau of Indian Affairs stonewalls charges of brutality committed by its peace agents against the Native Americans entrusted to its care, the federal government embarks on a program to emancipate millions of acres of land from abusive cattlemen and exploitive miners. And like the conflict between north and South, the growing enmity between the West and the rest of the country is fundamentally a matter of opposing cultures. In spite of the Census Bureau’s claim that the majority of the Western population today lives in cities, the culture as opposed to the demographics of the region remains rural, not urban, as that of most of the nation at large has become. (The Census Bureau classifies my hometown of Kemmerer, Wyoming, as “urban,” although it has a population of just over 3,000 people and the closest neighboring town, population 1,500, is 45 miles away.)
Through all kinds of issues having no explicit connection with the War on the West, institutions and practices integral to Western life are currently under attack by either political or cultural forces or both—among them the productive use of land, animal husbandry, hunting, gun ownership, rodeo, independence, and privacy. What Westerners hear from Washington these days is the message that rural people are dinosaurs, a dwindling minority whose values are antiprogressive and whose interests therefore need not be consulted. (For instance, it is plain to everyone by now that the Clintons’ national health care plan is wildly unsuited to the requirements of rural areas, particularly in the West, where it will of course, if passed, be impartially installed.) Though Wyoming’s wealth is produced by its mineral resources, its values, as Watt argues, are derived from agriculture and from the wide open spaces that promote a spirit of independence. But “agricultural values” are the last thing an administration committed to the principles of GATT—which, as Wendell Berry insists, will only complete the destruction of the family farm that American agricultural policy has warred against for the last 60 years—cares about, while “independence” is precisely what our federal masters in Washington wish to subvert, anywhere and everywhere, within the former American Republic.
Still, the Southern metaphor seems less apt than the colonial one, as employed by Senator Wallop when he accused Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt of attempting “completely [to] reorder the relationship between the federal government and its Western colonies. I call them colonies because [the federals] don’t believe them to be states.” In fact, the historical relationship between East and West is a textbook example of colonialism, characterized by exploitation of resources and abuses of economic and political control exercised at a distance by foreign capital and governance. In the early days of exploration and development these practices were unavoidable, since many or most explorers and developers were necessarily agents of interests and associations operating in a wilderness devoid of interests and associations of its own. As the Western territories (with the lusty encouragement of the U.S. government) became settled, however, regional social and economic textures thickened, giving rise to indigenous institutions existing alongside remotely controlled ones. Though Washington was as eager for reasons of security and convenience to sec the Western territories grow into proper states as it had been to have them settled up, it never really countenanced the transition, being accustomed to regard the West less as a geographical extension of the American body politic than as a vast resource dump from which to feed and develop the Eastern half of the country, as well as a white area on the map in which to perform dangerous experiments—that being, after all, the federal government’s definition of the word “desert.” The first question that comes to mind regarding recent revelations by the Department of Energy concerning the American government’s use of unwitting citizens as human guinea pigs and secret atomic tests in the “wastelands” of Nevada is: What should we expect of a government that seeks to make the slaughter of unborn children the law of the land? The second is: What does the government’s willingness to expose its former territorial people in Arizona and Utah to downwind radioactive pollution tell us about its true feelings regarding that “second-class citizenship” it deplores when the second-class citizens concerned are blacks, women, homosexuals, cripples, or people without free health insurance?
As applied to the American West, the colonial paradigm works only if we assume that the federal system, based substantially on the acceptance of a discrete regionality, was—and is—a plan to be taken seriously and adhered to strenuously. Events preceding the Civil War were the first major test of the commitment of American politicians to federalism; they flunked, and, contrary to the claims of the Great Emancipator, the war that followed was a vitiation, not a vindication, of the federal principle. But while the War for the Union went a long wav toward deciding questions of regionality in America, the subsequent history of the United States is proof of how much was still left to decide, which from a states’ rights point of view has been forfeited since. Though the conventional explanation of why the federal government owns 89 percent of the state of Nevada, 49 percent of the state of Wyoming, and comparable portions of the other Western states is that no one else wanted the land, perhaps the time has come for historians to reconsider the plausibility of this historical chestnut. Uncle Sam, it is true, is no genius. But he is shrewd and, when it comes to assessing his own interests, farsighted aplenty.
Particularly galling to Westerners is the East’s quixotic decision that it now prefers a theme park, playground, or fantasy land to the wide-open field for mineral extraction, railroad-building, cattle ranching, timbering, dam-building, and desert reclamation it once saw—almost exclusively—in the West. In this respect particularly, the regions are out of sync with one another, the East and Ear West having discovered the joys of postmodernism before the West has entirely entered the modern era. Viewed from a somewhat different perspective, the situation is the result of the extension of colonial power from the industrial East to the postindustrial Ear West, from the 19th-century values of industry and capital to the late 20th-century ones of leisure, recreation, and self-discovery. The West, having been exploited by each set of values in turn, today finds itself literally pressed between them.
It is true that the forces currently threatening Western civilization are not only exogenous. The West is, and always has been, home to a powerful and determined class whose aim is to transform their native region into a facsimile of California, Texas, or, closer to home, the Salt Lake Valley; to slip the leash on “progress” and accomplish with their bulldozers, drag lines, power plants, and asphalt spreaders an alternative type of destruction to that being planned by outsiders with their blueprints for resort communities and second-home subdivisions, their schemes for wilderness lockups and lockouts. The debate between the proponents of the Old and the New West is almost as vigorously prosecuted intramurally as it is across regional boundaries, the chief difference being that the native advocates of development are former Sage Brush rebels who want the feds to remand all the Western public lands to the Western states, which in turn would sell them off to private bidders.
Apart from the obvious objection that these private buyers would be at least as likely to represent non-Western interests as Western ones, this solution to the public lands question indicates the magnitude of the crisis facing the Old West. As long as Washington controls these lands, it enjoys nearly irresistible leverage by which to determine the social, economic, and political future of the West; should control pass to the states themselves, it would certainly devolve in short order upon a rapacious minority of Westerners who see no loss but only financial gain in “improving” their region to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from most of the rest of the country. The rich may be different from you and me, as Scott Fitzgerald told Ernest Hemingway, but they are no different from one another. West or East, and they have not become rich by a regard for any consideration other than that of monetary gain. The paradox is that, for the foreseeable future, the well-being and security of the American West depend upon its public lands remaining in the grip of the federal government, withheld from irresponsible development by private interests while continuing to be made available for limited and responsible private use by Westerners, who for generations have made a generally precarious living from them. Cattlemen and sheepmen are not presently damaging the range, which today is in better condition than it has been at any time since the 1950’s: a fact well known to the Clinton people, who have dishonorably attempted to suppress the truth. The solution to the Western land use impasse is therefore a simple one: preserve the status quo ante helium.
Ten years ago I was visited by Francis Russell, the late American historian and biographer of Warren G. Harding, then making his first car trip across country with his new wife at the tender age of 75. I drove Francis and his bride by jeep into the mountains, where they saw deer and elk, and later to a cedar break overlooking the sagebrush desert of the Green River Basin for a supper of antelope steaks cooked over a juniper-wood fire. While I prepared dinner, Francis wandered onto a stony promontory a hundred yards from camp and stood staring across the broken tablelands to the Uinta Mountains 70 miles away in northern Utah, their snowy peaks bathed in alpenglow from the evening sun. “You know,” he said to me when I went looking for him to refill his wine glass, “I never dreamed a place like this existed in the United States. America is really an empire, not a country, isn’t it? I never realized that before.” He was right, it is an empire. And right now what it needs more of is something called Home Rule.