Denver — Ronald Reagan's landslide may have set the stage for a revolution in national land policy: the transfer of as much as 400 million acres of public lands in West from federal to state hands.
Such a transfer long has been the goal of backers of the much touted "sagebrush rebellion."
Last summer, in a statement little noted by the national press Mr. Reagan told Utah Republicans in Salt Lake City, "I happen to be one who cheers and supports the sagebrush rebellion. Count me in as a rebel."
The President-elect's campaign manager, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R) of Nevada, has actively supported the movement and is considered a prime candidate for secretary of the interior.
The Carter administration, with Idaho environmentalist Cecil Andrus heading the Interior Department, has shown little if any support for the sagebrush rebels. Despite this fact, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Washington passed laws laying claim to federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands within their boundaries.
The amount of federally owned land in Western states includes: 87.7 percent of NevadaM, 63.8 percent of Idaho, 63.6 percent of Utah, 52.6 percent of Oregon, 48.6 percent of Wyoming, 47.5 percent of California, 44.1 percent of Arizona, 37 .3 percent of Colorado, 33.2 percent of New Mexico, 30.1 percent of Washington, and 29.7 percent of Montana.
Nevada has spearheaded this "rebellion." The state has been preparing a constitutional challenge against federal ownership of these lands, and it expects to bring the challenge into court by next January.Legal experts give this suit a poor chance of success. Most of the land involved was reserved by the federal government whe territories became states.
"I expect that, since the election, there will not be as much interest in pursuing a challenge in the Supreme Court," says Bob Erickson, who handles sagebrush rebellion issues for the Nevada Legislative council. Instead, he believes attention is shifting to companion bills pending in Congress, written by Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah and Rep. Jim Santini (D) of Nevada. These measures would set up a special commission and an "orderly process" for trans ferring BLM and US Forest Service lands to the states.
The sagebrush rebellion has remained relatively disorganized. "It's a loose association," acknowledges Dan Sprague of the Council of State Governments, who considers the movement as still emerging. The lion's share of the political and financial backing for this movement has come from Western ranchers, reacting to changes in BLM practices.
After decades of primary influence over federal grazing practices, ranchers in the 1960s suddenly found themselves at odds with urban encironmentalists and hunters concerned with overgrazing and the resulting decline in certain species of wildlife -- while federal land managers were caught in the middle. The greater political clout of the ranchers' adversaries resulted in a number of changes.
In 1973, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), along with environmental groups from several Western states, sued the Department of the Interior, arguing that it must write individual environmental impact statements on specific grazing areas. The NRDC won the suit. As a result, the BLM must prepare some 145 impact statements covering 143 million acres of Western rangeland by 1988.
Ranchers are concerned about this process because past government studies suggest that much of this land is being severely overgrazed. Yet significant reductions in the number of livestock that the federal government allows on public lands will hurt financially the ranchers with grazing rights on these lands.
In addition, Congress passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act in 1976. This charges the BLM with managing lands for multiple use and to manage the range on a sustained-use basis. Such a policy goes directly against the immediate economic interest of the ranchers.
On the other hand, it does have the support of sporting interests, environmentalists, and several American Indian tribes.
The exact degree of support for the sagebrush rebellion in the West is a matter of question. The few polls that have been conducted have proved inconclusive.
The most recent survey was a Gannett poll of Californians last month. It found that 54 percent of the respondents favored giving "more control" over public lands to state and local governments. The vague wording of the question -- it did not ask specifically about states taking control of federal lands -- makes this an unclear measure of public support for the rebellion, however.
Another survey, done a year ago by the Behavior Research Center of Phoenix, Ariz., found a quite different response in the eight rocky Mountain states. This survey reported a relatively uniform pattern of about 30 percent on favor of a state takeover with 60 percent opposed. The only exception was Nevada where the majority favored state control on BLM lands.
The wording of this survey has been criticized as well. Rebellion supporters object to the fact that this survey characterized the takeover as a seizure of federal lands. This prejudiced the responses, they argue.
Still, there is some evidence that support for the rebellion in the West is soft. In Washington State, for instance, an amendment that would have rescinded the section of the state constitution that pledges the state will never try to claim federal land went down to a 60 to 40 percent defeat.
In Idaho, the rebellion was a major issue in the waning days of the senatorial race between Democratic Sen. Frank Church and Republican challenger Steven Simms, with Mr. Simms in favor and Mr. church in opposition. Due in part to the efforts of Save Our Public Lands Inc., the only group organized thus far to oppose the rebellion, Mr. Simms, although the eventual winner, modified his original position of unqualified support.
bill Meiners, one of the founders of the anti-rebellion group, believes the Reagan victory will give a substantial boost to his opponents. In fact, he believes they have already won substantial concessions from the BLM.
"I have just been looking over BLM's new porposed grazing regulations and they represent an abdication of their trust responsibilities for managing these public lands," he objects.
These regulations greatly increase rancher participation in grazing decisions and put grazing reductions on a delayed, fiveyear schedule that can be delayed indefinitely by rancher appeals.
"There is a new responsiveness on BLM's part," agrees rebellion backer Sprague. And this has taken some of the steam out of the movement, he feels.
The ultimate outcome of the sagebrush rebellion will depend on a number of factors: the amount of momentum the rebellion has built up, the strength of the opposition, and the cumulative effects of the MX missile program and energy development in the West.