Moab History: Moab’s Role in the Sagebrush Rebellion

Public lands in the West have undoubtedly presented a contentious arena between multiple-use advocates pitted against those favoring the preservation of Wilderness, and often both pitted against the federal agencies governing these lands. The public land ownership and use tension has roots further than mining and agricultural uses; many of the lands we now consider public are also stolen lands from Indigenous populations. 

Beginning in the early 1970s, the US government began reconsidering its management of public lands, moving towards a structure that allowed for greater oversight and selling power from Washington D.C. It was a step many residents in western states took unkindly to. 

Bureau of Land Management & FLPMA

Most notably, the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA), which was signed into law on October 21, 1976, by President Gerald Ford, was designed to revise and extend the basic authority of the BLM to manage public lands in light of decades of overgrazing on public lands and minimal management. To critics of FLPMA, the law entrenched Washington D.C.’s “absentee landlord” relationship with the West. 

Dissidents to the law included San Juan County, Utah, Commissioner and uranium miner Cal Black (the basis for Edward Abbey’s “Monkey Wrench Gang” antagonist Bishop Love), Nevada state legislator Dean Rhoads, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, from Utah, and a number of other western state politicians.

Black and others wanted more local control over public lands, some seeking to transfer ownership to each state, while many conservationist groups felt that the federal government was the best trust for a collective good. 

Moab’s Sagebrush

While the Sagebrush Rebellion was mostly waged in state legislatures (Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Alaska, Oregon and Arizona) over the transfer of these public lands into state hands, Moab, UT had a significant role to play on the ground. 

Ray Tibbetts, a Moab local and county commissioner who found himself at the heart of the debate and who was subsequently chairman of the Western Association of Land Users, recalls the time in the Spring 1993 Issue of the Canyon Legacy #17:

“I was raised in Moab. From the early 1930s, I was used to the freedoms we had enjoyed on public lands for many years. The FLPMA act brought in a lot of new regulations, making it very tough for a lot of people here in the West, mainly in Grand County. FLPMA made it almost totally impossible for a piece of land to be transferred to private enterprise and put on tax roles. Grand County is very much public land. We have 3-5% private land, and that’s very little to provide the necessary services for people.”

Grandstaff Canyon and Mill Creek Canyon both became political battlefields due to their suggested Wilderness Study Area (WSA) status by the Bureau of Land Management. 

Tibbetts recalls: “We went in twice to the Mill Creek Unit of the WSA. On the July 4th celebration we went in and graded the road… it was symbolic, what we were trying to prove.”

These incidents individually diffused with the election of Ronald Reagan and his appointment of Secretary of Interior and property-rights advocate James Watt, who rolled back regulations on public lands and aimed to incorporate more public opinion on the local scale into federal decisions. 

The rebellion itself lost its teeth as well due to in-fighting and misaligned internal goals. According to High Country News, “many of the Rebellion’s leaders understood that state-level land transfer bills were symbolic and had no real legal basis, so they’d get shot down by the courts thanks to the property and supremacy clauses of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Light v. United States.”

The fight over control of public lands remains top of mind even today. The right to use and enjoy public lands has always been a fraught issue. Will the lessons learned through the Sagebrush Rebellion dictate future interactions between land managers and land users?

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This article originally appeared in the Moab Sun News in our weekly Moab History Column.