Sagebrush Rebellion

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The Sagebrush Rebellion (aka Sagebrush Revolution) was a corporate political movement, with strong anti-environmentalist ideology, which supported the presidential candidacy of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign. It evolved eventually into what was known as the Wise Use movement.

It was funded by the big pollution and extraction industries of the west, led by brewer Joseph Coors. It became a coalition of industry money and conservative/libertarian ideologues who had a lot to do with Ronald Reagan, and actor and mediocre State governor, being treated seriously as a presidential candidate. Their activities marked a turning point in the anti-environmental movement.

The movement had links to a number of think-tank which provided some basic policy input.

  • The Mountain State Legal Foundation was started by Joseph Coors in 1976 to prosecute lawsuits attacking unions, homosexuals and minorities - especially those who worked against the large corporations under the guise of exercising their constitutional civil rights.
  • The Heritage Foundation was also started by Joseph Coors as a philosophical underpinning of his anti-environmental movement.

These two organisations became known as "Reagan's shadow cabinet" and they published a 2,000 page manifesto "Mandate for Change which became the blueprint for the first term of the Reagan Administration. Coors also chose for Reagan:

- James Watt as Secretary of the Interior (ex president of the Mountain States Legal Foundation)
- Anne Gorsuch as Administrator of the EPA
- Robert Burford, head of the Bureau of Land Management

Also highly influential with the administration in this 1981-1988 period were other think-tanks:


1983 Nov This year the wheels began to fall off the Sagebrush Rebellion. More than a million Americans and all 125 American-Indian tribes signed a petition demanding the removal of the Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, and in November of that year he was forced to resign. Watt was then indicted on twenty-five felony counts of influence-pedaling. Anne Gorsuch (who had by then married Robert Burford) was also forced to resign, as were 23 of her associates following a congressional investigation of sweetheart deals with polluters, including Coors.

Gorsuch's first deputy, Rita Lavelle, who had been Assistant Administrator for Solid Waste and Emergency at the EPA was jailed for perjury. (she lied to Congress)

Wise Use Revival

While the indictments and resignations cut the ground from under the Sagebrush Rebels for a few years, they eventually regrouped as the "Wise Use movement", led by a timber-industry lobbyist named Ron Arnold. This neo-conservative group argued that market mechanisms can best manage all natural resources and environmental problems, and Arnold's unabashed pledge was: "Our goal is to destroy, to eradicate the environmental movement. We want to be able to exploit the environment for private gain, absolutely."

1990 /E Dixy Lee Ray became Director of the Mountain States Legal Foundation in the last years of her life (she died 1994).She was the movement's enthusiastic spokesperson in promoting extremist property rights and anti-environmental legal activism. And with her funding and drive, the MSLF became the litigation factory of the Wise Use movement. [1]

1994 Wise Use helped propel Republican Rep, Newt Gingrich to the speaker's chair in Congress and he set about promoting a famous anti-environmental manifesto, "The Contract With America" (often called Gingrich's Contract ON America). Environmental policy in this movement was led by Rep. Tom DeLay, an ex-Houston pest exterminator with a biblical worldview of man's dominance over nature.

Gingrich and DeLay had learned from the James Watt debacle to conceal their radical agenda by avoiding frontal attacks and public debates. They mounted stealth attacks America's environmental laws, such as the popular statutes: Endangered Species, Clean Water and Clean Air acts. They tried to undermine these laws by attaching silent riders to must-pass budget bills.

Delay wanted to:

  • remove or modify restrictive pesticide regulations.
  • exterminate the Endangered Species Act
  • legalize DDT

He routinely referred to the EPA as "the Gestapo of government."

1995 Jan, DeLay invited a group of 350 lobbyists representing some of America's biggest polluters to collaborate in drafting legislation to dismantle federal health, safety and environmental laws.

1995 mid-year The activities and strategies of the Wise-Use movement was now well exposed and the Sierra Club, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) were jointly able to raise public interest enough to generate more than a million letters to Congress. Moderate Republicans joined in with the objections, and this emboldened President Clinton.

1995 Dec President Clinton shut down the government rather than pass a budget bill that carried many of the Gingrich-Delay silent-riders. The tide had turned and even moderate Republicans now supported Clinton's actions. [2]

2001 Mar 9 The Wise Use movement wasn't dead. James Watt's protege, Gale A Norton was appointed Secretary of the Interior by the new President George W Bush. She announced that her top deputy would be a mining industry lobbyist, J. Steven Griles, who worked with her in the Reagan/Watt Interior Department (1981-1988) before setting up as an coal, oil, and gas eecutive turned lobbyis. He made it clear to the Denver Post ... "that champions of industry will be running the department that oversees most of the nation's public lands. and [that he would be staffing] the same federal environmental protection agencies with anti-environmental movement leaders." [3]


  1. Shapers of the great debate on conservation: by Rache White Scheuering