(The following is an abridged copy of a speach that was given to Hillsdale College.) By William Perry Pendly, President of Mountain States Legal Foundation and author of Sagebrush Rebel
In the late 1970s, President Carter’s “War on the West” spawned what came to be known as the Sagebrush Rebellion, which Ronald Reagan embraced during his campaign for president in 1980: “I happen to be one who cheers and supports the Sagebrush Rebellion,” candidate Reagan proclaimed in a speech in Salt Lake City. “Count me in as a rebel.” The uprising was spurred by the fact that, more than any other region, the American West had been victimized by the environmental policies implemented—utterly regardless of their destructive economic and human consequences—during the previous two decades. Reagan had seen firsthand the transformation of the environmental movement from one of conservation and stewardship, in which the part played by human beings and technology was vital, to a movement in which humans and technology were understood to be enemies of nature. As articulated by Reagan, opposition to extreme environmentalism represented a return to true environmentalism. America’s “environment[al] heritage” will not be jeopardized, he promised, while at the same time insisting that “we are going to reaffirm that the economic prosperity of our people is a fundamental part of our environment.”
In terms of the public land issue, Reagan blamed “a tiny minority opposed to economic growth” for locking up federal lands that hold “probably 70 percent of the potential oil in the United States,” and he vowed to support the use of federal lands to meet America’s energy, economic, and foreign policy needs. As former governor of California, he knew all too well that the federal government owns a third of the land that makes up the United States, the vast majority of this being in the West. Federal holdings include nearly a third of Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Washington; roughly half of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Wyoming; and two-thirds or more of Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, and Utah. By comparison, the three non-Western states with the most federal land are New Hampshire at 14 percent, Florida at 13 percent, and Michigan at ten percent.
A typical way these policies get implemented is for environmental interest groups to sue a government agency under either the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) or the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and for the agency then to settle the lawsuit in the interest group’s favor. Sometimes—as in a 2008 lawsuit filed against the U.S. Forest Service by three environmental groups to prevent oil, gas, and mineral extraction in Pennsylvania—the government not only settles the lawsuit but also pays the interest groups for their complaints (in that case paying out nearly $20,000). Just last month, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit against the Interior Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over such “sue and settle” tactics following an ESA lawsuit by a group called Wild Earth Guardians that sought to restrict land use for agriculture, oil and gas drilling, wind farms, and other activities in a five-state area—Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas—inhabited by the lesser prairie chicken. “These settlements,” Pruitt said in a statement, “impose tougher regulations and shorter timelines than those imposed by Congress,” and thus violate the rule of law. “Oklahoma has indicated its willingness to protect the lesser prairie chicken,” he added, “but it seems increasingly clear this issue isn’t about sound science or saving endangered species.”
Following a recent report by the Government Accountability Office on how NEPA is being used to delay projects on federal lands, Dan Kish of the Institute for Energy Research characterized NEPA’s effect as “paralysis by analysis,” pointing out that “environmental impact statements, which were expected to take no more than 12 months 30 years ago, now take an estimated 4.6 years to complete.” NEPA’s consequences are wide-ranging: Since its passage in 1969, not a single new oil refinery has been built. Following forest fires in the West, as reported by the National Forest Association, “[NEPA] regulations . . . [delay] harvests of diseased or burned timber indefinitely. As such, usable salvage timber wastefully rots away, resulting in lost government income . . . and economic privation for local communities.” And afterHurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it was too little noted that twice—in 1977 and in 1996—plans to build a hurricane barrier and to raise and strengthen the levees were halted by environmentalist NEPA lawsuits.
Executive agencies can also simply implement the extremist environmental agenda on their own. This is how the Obama administration’s “war on coal” is being waged following the failure to pass the president’s “cap and trade” legislation even in the Democrat controlled Senate. This January, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set limits on how much carbon dioxide new coal-fired power plants are allowed to produce—limits that will require expensive and unproven technology, severely limiting the likelihood of new plants being built. This follows past regulation that will force the retirement of more than 30,000 megawatts of power capacity by the end of 2016. Later this year, the EPA plans to establish limits for already existing power plants, with devastating implications for coal-rich Western states such as Wyoming, which generates more coal annually than the next six coal producing states combined. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska points out that “89 percent of the coal electricity capacity that is due to go offline [due to regulation] was utilized as backup” to meet demand for energy during the harsh winter that just ended. Not only she and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, but also liberal Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, have worried that these EPA regulations will threaten the ability of America’s power grid to meet future demand.
Recently the EPA issued new regulations to redefine “wetlands,” the term of art by which the agency determines the reach of the Clean Water Act. Under these regulations, a Wyoming man named Andy Johnson—a welder who owns an eight-acre farm—has been targeted because he and his wife built a stock pond on their property and brought in brook and brown trout, ducks, and geese. The EPA is threatening civil and criminal penalties—including a $75,000-a-day fine—because Johnson failed to receive permission for his pond from the Army Corps of Engineers. (His permit from the Wyoming State Engineer’s office is irrelevant, according to the EPA.) So far Johnson has defied an EPA order to hire a consultant to assess the environmental impact of his stock pond and to propose a restoration project to be completed within 60 days of EPA approval. “This goes a lot further than a pond,” he is quoted as saying. “It’s about a person’s rights. I have three little kids. I am not going to roll over and let [the EPA] tell me what I can do on my land.”
It is little wonder that there is talk of another Sagebrush Rebellion like that embraced by Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s. Westerners know they deserve better, and that they and their states can be better stewards of their land than federal bureaucrats.
Printed with permission by Hillsdale College. To read the full text of the speach go to this link.