Published by The Lawfare Institute
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The history of the American West is largely one of competition over its most abundant and most coveted resource: land. Access to land in the West means access to water, pasture, minerals and the many other natural resources that an array of interests have jostled over for millennia. It is also a driving source of conflict in the region, at times escalating into full-throttle violence.
The U.S. federal government, as the supreme arbiter of the public lands of the West, has been the predominant player in that tumultuous history of conflict since the 18th century. Washington has periodically recalibrated its relationship with its western lands in line with the evolution of the national agenda, to both the relief and the chagrin of various local stakeholders. As a result, federal intervention—or lack thereof—in management of the West’s vast rangelands and the terranean treasure they harbor has indelibly influenced the intensity and nature of land-focused conflict in the region since federal expansion westward.
Now, intensifying climatic forces and the federal response they demand threaten to raise the potential for greater upheaval over western land management. The region is experiencing its most punishing drought of at least the past 1,200 years. As conditions continue to deteriorate, additional federal management measures will be needed to mitigate the immediate economic suffering while combating climate change to preempt even greater devastation in the future. Despite their necessity, these decisions and their effects on regional groups may reignite long-simmering enmity around land management.
The Roots of U.S. Public Lands and Their Stewardship
In the 21st century, conflict over land management in the West is often conceptualized as a battle between the federal government and those in favor of local control of land resources. The former, however, has not always been the boogeyman of local-control advocates the way it is today. In fact, the federal government’s original philosophy vis-a-vis its western lands was one of transferral to subfederal parties.
The wording of the Constitution firmly established the federal government’s domain over lands acquired as the new nation grew. The Property Clause, Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 of the Constitution, delineates that Congress “shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.” While the original states of the Union ceded territory to the new federal government beginning in 1781, unincorporated territory to the west of those states, most of which was bought from or relinquished by foreign governments or seized violently from indigenous peoples, was legally within Congress’s jurisdiction.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 kicked off a century of western expansion and prodigious land acquisition by the federal government. To oversee the grand endeavor of surveying, cataloging and disposing of the West’s hundreds of millions of acres, the General Land Office, the predecessor of the contemporary Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was established within the Department of the Treasury in 1812.
The purchase of Alaska’s 378 million acres in 1867 brought the total North American land accrued by the federal government to 1.8 billion acres. All but a small share of that land was intended to end up in private or state possession. Indeed, as more western land came under its control, the U.S. government devised and implemented land-based incentives to lure more Americans (and enterprises) out West as part of its nation-building plans.
In pursuit of those aims, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862, which made available 160-acre tracts of federal land throughout the West to individuals who would “improve” the land, that is, make it productive. That same year, Congress also passed the Pacific Railway Act and the Morrill Act, which provided, respectively, large tracts of land to railway companies for railroad construction and land grants to states to construct colleges of agriculture and engineering.
In the immediate decades after their passage, the federal government’s legislative efforts succeeded in populating the West with white settlers and industrializing it with railways and other infrastructure, as well as with booming livestock and agricultural sectors. As Washington handed off lands to newly formed states, burgeoning industries, and aspiring homesteaders, the ensuing land rush engendered conflict among competing interests looking to cash in on the free-for-all.
The Emergence of Concerted Land-Focused Conflict in the Western United States
Even as the 19th century progressed and the American West continued to industrialize, the law enforcement capacity of local bodies remained low. Without strong, local adjudicative agencies or the still fledgling legal and security apparatus of the federal government to protect property rights or otherwise maintain the rule of law, bitter competition over land devolved into violence as companies, families and individuals tussled for acreage.
Thus were born the range wars (also called sheep or cattle wars). These low-intensity conflicts, frequently fought between cattlemen who claimed primacy over the rangelands and sheepherders who sought unrestricted access to pasture, proliferated throughout the region. Bands of cattlemen conducted raids on sheepherder camps, slaughtering sheep and attacking herders, in notorious instances of rangeland violence in Wyoming, Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere.
With General Land Office representatives few and far between in the hundreds of millions of acres of the West, decisions regarding land usage and the resolution of land-based disputes often fell to local government agents whose neutrality in such matters was dubious given their proximity to local industries and enterprises. These authorities were often white settlers themselves, inclining them to the rights of cattlemen over sheepherders, who were often Native American or Hispanic in origin.
Many of these conflicts died down only with federal intervention. In some instances, the U.S. Cavalry rode in to stamp out conflicts with their superior firepower. In other instances, national forests or other federal domains were superimposed on land that was nominally federally owned but often loosely regulated, if at all. While these interventions rarely quelled the core grievances motivating the conflicts, they reduced the severity of the fighting through their assertion of federal authority and facilitated adjudication by local governments.
Paradoxically, then, the absence of consistent federal intervention in land management in the West allowed conflict to arise as competing interests sparred for advantage in an environment in which development and fortune-seeking were encouraged but strong legal structures or regulations were lacking. The negative consequences of that federal stance would soon catalyze a seismic change in the way the federal government stewarded the West’s public lands.
The Modern Shift From Federal Land Transferal to Retention and Preservation
By the early 1900s, lawlessness, overuse and climatic conditions had conspired to severely degrade the West’s rangelands and endanger its industries. These misfortunes pushed local companies and governments to request federal intervention to stem the violence and ensure the survival of rangeland economies. The U.S. government’s response commenced the decades-long reversal of its previous strategy of non-intervention.
After decades of land transfers, participation in the homesteading program peaked in 1910. Homestead entries then declined steadily in the 1920s and 1930s because the most fecund agricultural lands were taken by the program’s initial participants. The cattle boom of the late 19th century, while enriching local ranchers and creating a thriving industry, severely degraded pasturelands. Combined with the subsequent devastation of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, this degradation destabilized the region’s economy.
Further, the entreaties by desperate westerners prompted Washington to recalibrate its approach to the management of public lands. The Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 soon became law. Ranchers now needed to apply for permits to graze their cattle on newly designated federal allotments and prove they owned property near the allotments they wished to access. The act effectively brought an end to the rangeland free-for-all of the preceding decades by empowering the Department of the Interior to classify and regulate public lands at federal discretion. Symbolically, it signaled a new era of federal involvement on the range.
Three decades later, transformative legislation in the 1960s and 1970s cemented the federal government’s ubiquity in western land management. In the wake of the environmental toll of the nation’s rapid development in the 19th and 20th centuries, public opinion indicated that the public desired a more involved and environmentally conscious federal hand in the management of the country’s public lands.
In 1964, the federal government responded by passing the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System to protect pristine wildlife habitat from exploitation and development. Not quite a decade later, in 1973, the Endangered Species Act became law, introducing new guidelines for federal management of public lands that required the relevant federal agencies to treat as paramount the recovery of imperiled species. Finally, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 codified the federal government’s new approach to the public lands of the West: an emphasis on retention over transfer, and on environmental protection over unfettered extraction and development. The latter act formally codified the federal intention to retain in perpetuity all existing public lands under congressional control.
Prior to the 1960s and 1970s, the eventual transfer of millions of federal acres to local stakeholders remained just enough of a possibility to inspire hope in local-control advocates in the West. The paradigm shift of those decades stamped out those hopes. Consequently, the farmers and ranchers of the West, despite their request for federal assistance in the early 20th century, began to bristle at the mushrooming federal footprint on the terrain on which many grazed their cattle and grew crops. From those grievances emerged the contours of contemporary conflicts over federal control of public land.
Modern Resistance to Federal Land Management
In the western states and communities most affected by greater federal involvement in land management, passionate resistance bubbled up, inspiring a movement that persists today. That anti-federal fervor among certain western groups has materialized in increasingly brazen challenges and rebukes of federal authority that have at times become violent. In a reversal of its neutralizing effect on the land-centered disputes of the 19th and early 20th centuries, federal intervention in land management has become a stimulus for heightened conflict.
The first discrete outgrowth of western resistance to federal intervention in land management was the Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s. An aggrieved consortium of representatives of the extractives industries (primarily ranchers, loggers, miners and oilmen), county commissioners and state and federal elected officials, the rebels pushed for a combination of deregulation and federal-to-state land transfers in the face of what they viewed as the onerous environmental and conservation laws of the 1960s and 1970s.
President Carter’s support for these laws, as well as plans to limit or cancel federal water projects throughout the region, sparked an aggressive public relations and lobbying campaign by the Sagebrush leaders to wrest millions of acres of public land from the federal government. In 1980, the Nevada legislature considered and passed into law the Sagebrush Rebellion Act, which proclaimed federal land holdings within its borders as belonging to the state and prescribed procedures for their management. Similar bills were passed or considered in many other western states.
The rebels rejoiced in 1980 upon the election of Ronald Reagan, an extractives-friendly candidate who famously encouraged the rebels to “count [him]” in as one of their own. Reagan’s interior secretary, James Watt, accelerated extractive activities on public lands and put a pause on further federal preservation efforts. In Congress, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was the most boisterous, though far from the only, federal representative who attempted to legislate the movement’s goals.
Despite the press and political support the movement generated, the Sagebrush campaign fizzled out in the early 1980s without clinching meaningful federal-to-state land transfers. Perhaps its greatest success, however, was its elevation of the public lands question to greater prominence and its energization of local stakeholders who shared the movement’s antipathetic views on federal control of the West’s public lands.
The legacy of the movement became clear in the early 1990s, when local governments and officials began challenging federal authority over public lands. Though the aforementioned state bills declaring state ownership of federal lands bore little practical or legal weight, more than 30 counties in various states followed suit in the 1990s by enacting ordinances that either emulated those earlier state bills in laying claim to federal land as state land or otherwise tacitly encouraging locals to disregard federal land regulations.
Federal courts struck down many of those ordinances for the same reason the original Sagebrush Rebellion’s legal and political attempts to force federal divestiture of public lands failed: The Constitution is crystal clear on the supremacy of the federal government and on Congress’s primacy over U.S. public lands. Regardless, the increasing frequency of legal and political challenges to federal authority over public lands signaled its growing role as a flashpoint in the country.
As the movement progressed, challenges to federal authority became increasingly violent. In the spring of 1995, an explosion rocked a U.S. Forest Service office in Carson City, Nevada; another bomb detonated at a forest ranger’s home four months later; the following year, two more bombs went off in Forest Service and BLM offices; and in Nye County, the county commissioner forcibly accessed a closed road with a bulldozer on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service and then threatened to arrest forest rangers who confronted him. Interviews revealed that the uptick in violence sent a chill through federal agents in the area, and that officials began traveling in pairs on the range.
The 1990s also saw the emergence of perhaps the best-known face of the modern local-control movement: the Bundy family. Since the early 1990s, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada cattle rancher, persistently grazed his animals on federally owned and protected land in violation of federal law. Bundy’s reasoning for his recalcitrance toward federal regulations was that his family had grazed on the land in question since the 19th century.
By March 2014, Bundy, who stalwartly refused to pay the more than $1 million he owed in fees and continued to graze his cattle on protected public land, received notice from BLM that it planned to impound his cattle. In response, Bundy appealed to county officials for protection, and conducted a spate of local and national interviews to drum up further support. He and his family were soon joined by hundreds of armed supporters, many of them militia members, from other western states. When federal agents began the round-up of Bundy’s cattle, one of his sons and several family members were injured in separate scuffles with federal officials. After armed supporters amassed at an encampment near the site of the cattle round-up, BLM abandoned enforcement of its court order.
Two years later, Bundy’s sons Ryan and Ammon spearheaded the occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon that once again put land management disputes in the West in national headlines. More than two dozen individuals joined the Bundys in the occupation in protest of the federal prosecution of two local ranchers charged with federal land arson. The occupation and standoff lasted for more than a month, and federal agents shot and killed one of the occupiers during his arrest.
The Nevada and Oregon standoffs catapulted federal land management—and all the political issues for which it had come to serve as a proxy—back into national headlines. Continuing the trend started by the Sagebrush Rebellion and indicative of the nation’s political fault lines, the Bundys became darlings of conservative media. Elected officials including Governor Brian Sandoval, R-Nev., Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., and several western House representatives also expressed their support for Bundy and his allies. Ammon Bundy is now running for Idaho governor, and other local-control advocates, some of whom espouse or harbor far-right sympathies, have embraced local government posts as legal vehicles through which they can wield public resources to challenge federal authority over public lands.
Even as the chances of federal divestiture of public lands shrinks with each passing year from its already small universe of likelihood, the recrudescence of land-focused conflict in the 2010s demonstrates that the situation remains flammable west of the Mississippi. Unprecedented drought and climate change now threaten to strain those tensions further.
The Risk Amplifiers of Extreme Drought and Climate Change
Managing the West’s public lands pursuant to the conservation laws of the 1960s and 1970s, while ensuring fair access to land and water resources for its diverse constituencies, is a Herculean and largely thankless task for federal agencies. Worryingly, a new era of necessary federal intervention may be looming. Federal measures to combat the extreme drought besieging the region and to utilize public lands to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are likely to trigger blowback among the already contentious local-control movement.
All indications suggest that the West’s climate is changing inexorably. Despite recent improvements, as of this writing, more than 97 percent of the region is experiencing some level of drought. Just over half is under extreme drought, and nearly a fifth is suffering exceptional drought, the most severe category used by the U.S. Drought Monitor. Climatologists and hydrologists warn that the region may have already entered an irreversible megadrought not seen in the region for 1,200 years. And the West is growing, with urban centers throughout the region expanding and suburbanizing at a breakneck pace. With more development, the pressure on water systems to keep up grows.
The federal government has already responded to the crisis by issuing its first-ever cuts to the volume of water that states may divert from the Colorado River, the hydro-backbone of the West. Given that the river-flows of the Colorado provide cities, farmers, hydroelectric power plants and ecosystems throughout the West with vital water resources, acrimony is likely to mount as federal authorities limit water takes for triage and conservation purposes. And those are only the first steps. Predictions for drought-breaking rain in the near to long-term future do not augur well for the obviation of these last-resort measures.
The potential for greater conflict over federally managed public lands comes not just from intervention demanded by current drought conditions but also from the need to avert a climate emergency in the future. The Biden administration’s goal of halving U.S. emissions by 2030, in pursuit of net-zero emissions by 2050, will require a colossal buildout of solar and wind arrays around the country and a nationwide labyrinth of transmission lines. Federal agencies and congresspeople alike have proposed siting much of that buildout on public lands in the West. Indeed, in January the Biden administration directed the Department of the Interior to prioritize the identification of suitable federal lands for renewable energy expansion. While that buildout is poised to provide significant economic benefits and create well-paying jobs for local economies, the land usage regulations needed to build and maintain that infrastructure are likely to draw opposition from the same groups that oppose federal intervention to begin with.
Furthermore, climatologists and ecologists have accentuated the role of natural climate solutions in the battle against anthropogenic warming. Protecting existing carbon sinks, many of the best of which are located in national forests or on other public lands, is an attractive and low-cost climate solution for federal officials. The Biden administration’s verbal commitment to protect 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 to fight climate change and protect beleaguered species is a hint at this strategy’s appeal to policymakers. The greater constraints on extractive activities on public lands necessary to protect and enforce that initiative are likely to generate similar outrage.
Indeed, agitators have already attempted to foment unrest in at least one part of the West in response to federal action to protect an endangered species. In early summer, anti-government extremists associated with the Bundy family rallied local farmers and ranchers to demand that federal agents in Klamath Falls, Oregon, open the headgates of the Klamath Basin to release its remaining water for agricultural irrigation. Two local men set up camp by the headgates of the basin, telling local reporters that they were “going to turn the water on and have a standoff,” and were joined by protesters associated with Ammon Bundy’s People’s Rights network. Though the organizers failed to garner widespread local support for their efforts, their usage of the issue as a rallying cry portends the tactic’s replication moving forward—and future attempts may prove more successful as conditions worsen and desperation grows among water-dependent communities and industries.
The dilemma over whether to conserve water for endangered species protection or unleash what remains to satisfy agricultural interests is likely to recur as more species suffer the effects of drought and climate change. Given the preexisting antipathy toward federal land management practices, those that lose out on water access are unlikely to do so quietly.
The vast rangelands of the American West have been the site of competition and conflict for hundreds of years. And drought has been an integral part of that landscape for centuries. But going forward, the climate emergency threatens conditions completely foreign to modern agricultural producers in western North America; the federal measures needed to mitigate their devastation may conspire to heighten the risk of conflict over federal management of the region’s most vital resource. In an era in which an increasing portion of the American public views violence as a legitimate means of resolving political disputes, the risk of land-centered enmity motivating conflict cannot be ruled out. As extreme drought withers livelihoods and the federal government moves to limit the suffering in an equitable manner, the chance that dismay and anger escalate into violence grows.