Echoes of 'Sagebrush Rebellion' resound in Washington corridors

It may no longer be called the "Sagebrush Rebellion," but there is considerable movement in the Reagan administration and on Capitol Hill to make significant changes in the stewardship of federal land. More mining, more drilling, more grazing, more timber cutting, and more local control seem inevitable as more Westerners take over government agencies and key congressional committees.

Interior Secretary James G. Watt, a Westerner who earlier pronounced himself a sagebrush rebel (as did Ronald Reagan as a presidential candidate), now embraces a softer-spoken "good neighbor policy" that he hopes will "defuse" the rebellion against Washington by Western states.

Yet early administration moves indicate the "rebels" may not need outright confrontation to win much of what they are fighting for.

One of the first Interior Department moves was to revoke earlier land withdrawals that had prevented mining and oil and gas drilling on 680,000 acres in 11 Western states. This included 22,000 acres in the Rio Grande National Forest.

Mr. Watt says his department should act as "amicus" end) for the minerals industry "in the court of federal policymaking." "I am reviewing . . . provisions permitting exploration for and development of minerals within the wilderness system," he told a Senate committee earlier this year.

Mr. Watt also has expressed interest in a bill, written by US Rep. James D. Santini (D) of Nevada, that would give mining companies another 10 years to search for minerals in wilderness areas.

The administration also wants to give corporate farms more access to federal irrigation water originally intended for family farmers, Interior Department Assistant Secretary Garrey Carruthers told the Monitor this week.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) currently is studying 24 million acres (of the more than 300 million acres in its domain) as possible wilderness areas deserving of maximum federal protection. Dr. Carruthers told a House committee this week that the administration views this lengthy review as "a very serious problem." If suitable for other purposes, he said, "they should be released as soon as possible."

"We're working very hard at speeding up coal leasing," BLM director Robert Burford told the same panel. Mr. Burford is a fourth- generation Westerner, rancher, and mining engineer.

This move worries environmentalists, as does the appointment of others to manage federal lands. John Crowell, the new assistant secretary of the Agriculture Department who would control timber cutting on federal lands, formerly worked for a large timber company.

Westerners who advocate less control over mountains and rangelands also have increased clout on Capitol Hill these days. The new Senate Energy Committee and Natural Resources chairman is James A. McClure (R) of Idaho, who favors more energy exploration on federal lands. Eleven of its 20 members are Westerners, including those chairing subcommittees on public lands, energy development, and water.

Westerners complain that 63 percent of the land west of the Rockies is managed by the federal government, compared with just 5 percent in the East. Representative Santini and Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) of Utah have introduced legislation that would provide for the transfer of much of this land to state governments. Such a drastic change is given little chance of passage, but the Reagan administration is headed in this direction by offering to consolidate, swap, and otherwise revert to local control many federal holdings.

This is a key part of Secretary Watt's "good neighbor policy." Environmentalists are wary of this, but have frontally attacked the more aggressive parts of the administration's public lands plans. Democrats on the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee recently invoked an emergency provision of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act to prevent Secretary Watt from opening 1.5 million acres of Montana wilderness to mineral leasing. It was only the second time the House used this power and most likely will be challenged on constitutional grounds.

Thus, while the "Sagebrush Rebellion" may not have come to Washington as such , its essent ial controversy and skirmishing have.

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