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Summer ’99 contents


There is still debate about it in the "outback" of America. Not everyone in the rural West agrees that federal authority is adversary. Yet it cannot be denied that the future of the western way of life is today in doubt. Few know that better than the rancher and politician who first called it "war," and whom we ask,


© 1999 Tim Findley. Illustrations by John Bardwell.


Malcolm Wallop ©John Bardwell
Illustration ©John Bardwell
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Malcolm Wallop stepped up from the Wyoming State Legislature in 1976 to win a seat in the United States Senate. He is a third generation rancher from Big Horn, Wyo., and although he had served seven years in the state legislature, he was little known in the cities of the Cowboy State. It was all the more remarkable when he was elected to the senate on an almost entirely rural vote, without carrying the urban districts of Cheyenne, Casper, Laramie, or even Rock Springs.

For the next 18 years until his retirement in 1995, Senator Wallop was uniquely the champion of western rural rights and sound country reasoning. From his position as the ranking Republican member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Wallop fought to protect and preserve the multiple uses of federal land, including energy development. He was noted as a tax reformer, leading legislation to cut inheritance and gift taxes, and as an authority on western water law, repeatedly halting federal attempts to encroach on states’ control of their water resources.

He is perhaps best known for coining the term "War on the West" to describe what he saw as increasing attempts to "colonize" the West through increased federal regulation and interference with state and private property rights.

Senator Wallop continues to work for the freedoms of rural westerners from his offices in Arlington, Va., where he is the chairman and founder of the Frontiers of Freedom Institute.

RANGE: Senator, you get the credit for calling it "War on the West." Did you mean by that that the country was dividing itself?
Wallop: Well, yes, I said it in the late ’70s. I meant not that the country was dividing itself, but that it was being divided by government, and that federal authorities were seriously treating the West not as states, but as colonial holdings. If you recall, the Carter administration then was into Roadless Area Revue & Evaluation and one of the things I said was that I thought RARE II was the most serious environmental assault I had yet seen. They asked "Why?" and I said because the more you restrict public access to all the lands it has, the more impact you force onto the lands that remain accessible.
They only think of one side of the equation at a time in Washington, and so you had this assault on the public lands states and the commodities industries. And the assault continues.

RANGE: Was there one thing that prompted you to call it War on the West?
No. It was a sort of huge combination of things. The federal government began to assert its dominion over water rights. It was the assertion that the federal government knew best and the rest of us should keep quiet until it made up its mind. It was the expanded assault on all the commodities industries, whether livestock or timber or mining or oil and gas. And it was at the same time the beginning of new impositions, such as unfunded mandates to states. The western states with low tax bases and small governments were really hard hit by the federal government telling them that they had to do a variety of things in order to exist. We felt it most in the West because we were more broadly exposed to the whims of the federal government.

RANGE: It was about that time, I think, that those in the West who protested started being called ‘"extremists" or worse. There was a politicization of people who might normally not have been political at all.
What’s interesting about that is that those of us in the West who complained about the way we were treated, and gave it names, were treated in return by being called names. It hasn’t been the habit of conservatives or westerners to call people names. When we began to succeed, as we did, and Reagan recognized the whole business of arrogant government; when we began to win a few things, we began to be called the "outlaws," the "demons," the "rednecks" and even "fascists"?all the various personal epithets that the political left felt would stick.

RANGE: It was about that same time that the so-called "Sagebrush Rebellion" was beginning on the premise of giving states control over their public lands. Did you support that?
I did and I do still. It was the natural result of the War on the West. If there’s going to be a war, then it makes sense that somebody has to rebel against being captured! It was the consequence of a very unfeeling, insensitive government that viewed our small populations and, by comparison, our essentially small economies, as theirs to toy with, and it was simply because they control such a significant portion of our economic base, namely the land.

RANGE: Why do you think it became so apparent then? We have talked to many people who were second and third generation folks on the land and who in the past had genuine respect for range conservation officers, for Forest Service people and for other federal employees until they seemed to become more and more authoritative and, maybe, arrogant. Why did that happen?
Well, strangely, enough, it started with the Nixon people who began to write environmental laws, because they felt that the public wanted environmental laws and had no clue as to what they should be. I’ve talked to a number of people who wrote them and who said there were no standards to go by, so they just conjured up standards. What came from that was an emboldening and an expansion of the environmental movement, and a response within the land management agencies of a sort of unmitigated arrogance that said, "We know best, and you couldn’t possibly know what we do."
    Some of us tried to make the case that "Heck, if we’ve been doing so badly, there wouldn’t be anything left to save out here." But it was lost on them as they sat in their New York and Washington salons and contemplated the West they’d never seen and many of them had never even visited?only seen in pictures.

RANGE: So you saw it as something created out of their imagination?
Yes, basically, and it wasn’t just something in the West at that time. As a matter of fact, all public agencies began at the end of the Viet Nam War to view Americans as subjects, not citizens. That’s when the big abuses of the IRS began. That’s when the Environmental Protection Agency started.
    OSHA, as you may recall, was the big issue in my own campaign. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was promulgating regulations as fast as it could write them, including such marvelous things as everybody in agriculture having to be within five minutes of toilet and lavatory facilities. My first senate campaign used that regulation in an ad that showed a cowboy with a portable toilet strapped on to his saddle. All of the public administrative agencies began to get really arrogant. They figured they were in dominion over us, not servants of us. It was particularly noticeable in the West because we had so many of them affecting each segment of our daily lives.

RANGE: It’s my understanding that President Reagan at the time was discussing with Interior Secretary Watt some possibility of privatizing a great deal of federal lands or at least turning them over to state control.
I was in the leadership of that because I thought then, as I do now, that private ownership of land is far better husbandry than is public ownership. Yellowstone Park is probably the most degraded piece of rangeland in America today, and if any ranchers were managing their property that way, they’d lose it. But when the feds do it, that’s their privilege.
    The difficult part of that was that a great many people who agreed with us on all kinds of other issues were afraid that they would lose their access to what they considered to be their ranches; it was their land to fish or hunt or go camping on. Sadly, they will find they would have had more access than the government has in mind for them.

RANGE: As someone said, apparently many took the view that if they could lease the land for a nickel, why risk losing it to someone with more dollars...
Well, there was another thing that happened. Among the things that [Interior Secretary] Jim Watt started to do, which was intelligent and extreme, but still needs to be done, was to reorganize the federal holdings into at least sensible management blocks. One of the sources of opposition to that became the small towns which had either BLM or Forest Service offices in them that might have been shut to make it more efficient. So one of the objections to reorganizing the federal land mass was the defense of local economies through federal payrolls.

RANGE: Do you think that at the time people in the rural West were simply unaware of the pressures being exerted by the environmentalists?
They were unaware of it because they, very legitimately, considered themselves environmentalists and thought they had done a pretty good job of taking care of most things. They couldn’t imagine that the principle purpose of the organized environmental movement was less the protection of the environment than it was the acquisition of power.

RANGE: Interior Secretary Babbitt seems to have expressed some of that soon after taking office by saying he was going to end the influence of what he called the "agricultural apparatchiks."
Well, again, it’s interesting, is it not, that the liberals are the only ones who devote themselves to epithets and name-calling? But I have to tell you that this started with George Bush and [then-EPA Director William K.] Reilly although not because he [Bush] did it on purpose, but because he allowed it to happen. The ironic thing is that when Bush was the vice president and in charge of Reagan’s regulatory reform and paperwork reduction, Reagan’s whole point was that public servants were just that?they were public servants and not masters. And Reagan tried very hard to change the attitude back to trying to seek solutions instead of impose them.
    When Bush became president and started seeking his "kinder, gentler" country, he literally empowered the land management agencies all over again to assert their dominion with arrogance. So when Babbitt came along, they were well trained and ready to go. Babbitt’s name-calling, and his view that somehow those of us who lived on the land were inherently untrustworthy abusers who could not succeed without destroying the resource, became the attitude of the BLM, the Corps of Engineers, the EPA, the Forest Service, and even the Park Service.

RANGE: Secretary Babbitt did encounter some congressional opposition, though, from you and others. What seemed remarkable was his position that he didn’t care?that he would almost defy Congress and administratively enact his program.
Not "almost." That’s exactly what he did and he is not an aberration in this administration. From the president on down, they view laws as means by which others are controlled, but not they themselves. Babbitt, to his credit, has one economic brain, and he knows that if he can get control over both the land and the water that government can forever have control over the West, because control of the water is our economic lodestone. He has said that the worst mistake the federal government ever made was ceding control of the water to the states, and he has been trying to wrest that back in whatever way he can. He has been trying to get the president to issue executive orders as he did with the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which raised such a stink. They did it without consulting the governor of Utah, without appropriations and without authorization. And then to keep them quiet, they gave Utah 50 million bucks without any authorization. So by the exercise of what most of us believe was an unlawful presidential order, the public gets to pay huge amounts of money. And now, they’re talking about setting aside 400,000 more acres as a national monument. Even Clinton’s own people urgently counseled against doing that, and yet it was done. They got away with it. So now another 400,000 acres is on their plate. It’s scary because they are destroying the base economy of the West.
    As you know, there are no sawmills left in the southwest region of the Forest Service. Long-term timber contracts are simply voided in the Tongass [National Forest] and the government had to pay Louisiana Pacific 175 million bucks! They’re spending our money without ever getting any authorization to do it, and the renewable resources are going to waste.

RANGE: What we hear people saying most often, Senator, is "Why"? Why is this being done?
Power. It’s power. I promise you that from my experience in Washington, the environmentalists are concerned far less about the environment than they are about their power. I give you Senator [Robert T.] Stafford of Vermont who was about the "greenest" person with whom I ever served. But he was a Republican, and the environmentalists all came out against him in his re-election. These people are even after those who agree with them, unless they have the right label before their name.

RANGE: What does that accomplish?
It simply adds to their importance. It is the means by which they get funded. I am absolutely persuaded of that. For example, one of the things it accomplishes is that George Frampton, former head of the Wilderness Society, became assistant secretary of Interior and is now acting chairman of the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. Had anybody been on the side of production where there were that many political ties into the private sector as Frampton had into the environmental world, there wouldn’t have been a chance in hell that he would ever have been approved for the nomination. It shows their power.

RANGE: This sort of thing alarms some people, Senator, to the point that they begin to see conspiracies involving a "One World Order," or the United Nations. It’s difficult to see what this sort of power accomplishes...
It’s easy to understand once you see that they don’t care a damn about what they’re doing. They care about the political effect that it has. There was no circumstance, for example, under which Yellowstone was threatened by the mine that was proposed outside the park boundaries in 1996. I can’t tell you the size of an earthquake it would take to tip that mine so that the waters from it would run into Yellowstone, but the quake would have to be monumental. Yet the administration paid a huge price tag to stop the mine and with it the reclamation work being done prior to beginning mining. The company was providing a reclamation service that will now never take place.
    It’s clear to me that neither the Park Service, the Forest Service nor anybody else is going to do what the company was doing to clean up old tailings and waste in that region from previous mining operations. That will never take place now. If the environmentalists had really cared about it, you’d think that would have been one of their conditions, but that was not even mentioned.

RANGE: That mine in particular drew a lot of media attention which was apparently promoted by the environmentalists, was it not?
The eastern media, and that’s where the media is principally located, is pretty widely uninformed about what is really happening in the West. Once in a while somebody gets taken out and shown. One of those was not even a reporter, but was Ralph Regula (R-Ohio) who is chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee and had never been out West. He came out and couldn’t imagine where all this timber came from. I mean, he thought it was all gone!

RANGE: It does seem that there are a lot of important people in the East and in Washington who have never really seen the western states except from its big cities...
Well, it’s true. One of the interesting things is that Babbitt made the statement in the Energy and Natural Resources Committee when I was a ranking member that the West is the most urbanized part of America, and therefore the highest and best use of public land was recreational ownership and wildlife. But the reason the West is the most urbanized, frankly, is because the habitat land use is constrained by public ownership, which forces us to live in more concentrated areas, for example, than people do in and around Virginia.

RANGE: Which maybe brings us back to today, 25 years into the "war" if you will, when by all indications the Clinton administration intends to increase control over public lands...
Yes. The president and Gore are going to be asking for a billion dollars a year for land acquisitions. Furthermore, the other real threat Babbitt raised is coming to pass. And that is that he will have made public land so expensive to operate that the people whose livelihood is connected with it will go broke. And they are going broke in incredible numbers. Right now, the federal government is not only increasing the cost of being on that land, but decreasing the economic support necessary to operate on that land. So people are going away from the little towns and the rural regions. Once they’re gone, the opposition is gone. But these people, the Babbitt people, are not going to be around when the rangeland begins to show the degradation that will come from non-use. They’ll be long gone. And yet it’s the most environmentally irresponsible move that could possibly be made.

RANGE: Is it also economically irresponsible?
Of course it is. Because, as I tried to point out to Babbitt at one of these hearings, the economic viability of the West is dependent on having access to these lands. One of the reasons why the Taylor Grazing Act and all those things came to pass was so that there would not be just one big timber or ranching or mining operation in the region to the exclusion of everything else. There was meant to be multiple use because the multiple users were the ones who came to the little towns in Wyoming or Nevada or wherever, and they educated their kids. They bought the shoes, the gasoline, the rifle bullets and all the other kinds of things that keep little towns economically viable.
    Now with Babbitt’s moves, these private holdings are being subdivided because they’re no longer economically viable as operations combined with grazing on public lands. So in western states you’re not getting a corresponding increase in tax revenues to match the decrease in viable small towns and in people who pay the taxes.
    For example, if you’re going to buy a ranch down in Sublette County, Wyo., say, and you buy it to "ranch the view," because the Babbitts make grazing cattle on it obviously unviable, you’re going to let Babbitt’s employees and the taxable livestock go. And you’ll sit there, but all the small families that used to operate the ranch for you or provide you with services, the cowboys, and the shoe salesmen and all those kinds of people, are not going to be there. You alone won’t be enough to make an economy.

RANGE: Some rural areas and some states have begun to sound that alarm. There’s talk of some kind of western summit in the next year and of a joint primary that would send a political message. Is the West fighting back?
Well, I’m not sure that the western primary is going to do that for us, because that just empowers California?or at least it empowers the urban centers. The Denvers, the Albuquerques, the Renos, and the Las Vegases don’t seem to have any sense of what is being lost around them. Their newspapers don’t seem to pay it much mind. So what is going to have to take place is a big meeting of county commissioners, small town mayors, ranchers, even outfitters. People who understand.

RANGE: Would you recommend such a major meeting?
Oh, yeah, so long as there is sufficient preparation to be sure that it can’t be taken over by groups with some other agenda.

RANGE: Why do you think such a meeting hasn’t taken place up to now?
Well, because those of us who are suffering the effects of this work for our living. You know, it’s one thing to sit in New York or Washington, or some other place, and have the Rockefellers and the Fords and others send you lots of tax-deductible money, while you don’t have anything to do except to bring lawsuits that the federal government has helped you arrange against itself so the government can acquiesce in a quick settlement without any need for legislation. It’s one thing for them to do that, but it’s another thing for those of us who must earn our living operating on the land.

RANGE: Do you think this "war" can be won on behalf of rural people in the West, or is it already lost?
Well, I’ll tell you this: if it isn’t won, it will be a much degraded West down the road. The more people will be forced to survive in urban centers, and the less the land is used and managed by people who really know and understand it?and I don’t mean the BLM or the Forest Service or the Corps of Engineers or the EPA, because they don’t know how to manage it?the more there will be environmental degradation.
    When you take families that have been on the land for two or three or five generations and run them off because they’re no longer economically viable, how do you get them back? How do you re-establish economic viability in time to save the little towns? And if there isn’t a little town, how are you going to get people to live where they can’t educate their kids, and buy groceries and shoes and all that’s necessary to survive? It’s the little people who must make themselves heard. It can happen. It happened to me in my last election when I was the first to be elected in Wyoming who didn’t carry a single metropolitan county.

RANGE: A lot of people who agree with you are hesitant today to become involved in the political issue because they fear they will be branded extremists of some kind.
Well, of course, and they are obviously not extremists. But the problem is that if they’re worried about the brand they wear, then they will be branded anyway and not get anything done. If they are branded in their silence, they might just as well be branded by their presence.

RANGE: It will take leadership. Do you see that leadership emerging today?
The hardest reason it doesn’t clearly exist comes down to money. The other side has done such a good job of creating a commodities recession for miners, and oil and gas people, and sheepmen and stockmen and outfitters and others, that those who once would have contributed, cannot contribute. It takes money to get an organization up and running. So what we’re going to need is maybe a few people who came from this world and had their successes in the Denvers and in the Las Vegases and other places and still think the world where they came from is important.

RANGE: Should westerners accept some responsibility and start trusting each other more?
There’s no generic answer to that. Babbitt claims to be a westerner, and I couldn’t begin to start trusting him more. Some westerners are not trustworthy. They either don’t understand the West or understand it all too well and detest its independence.

RANGE: Should we accept more responsibility?
Sure. The West won’t survive without its best people becoming part of a movement to help it. That entails an involvement that most of us prefer not to undertake, for in our independence exists a tolerance for others and a desire for solitude.
    It is when our views, developed in solitude, remain confined, that the organized forces arrayed against us seem victorious. We happily tell each other (who already know) what our problems are, but rarely take our case to the public. Those views are our common strength if only we would join together to express them.

*  *  *

Tim Findley is freelance writer living in Fallon, Nev.

Git Home! | Summer ’99 contents

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