Since civilization began, land has been a source of contention. When the colonists came to America, from the Old World, they found an abundance of land, untamed and raw. Our frontier spirit became part of our culture as we reached out to the next hill and valley, to settle on the land and to built towns and communities. Land speculation also began early and it was quite popular among the founders of our Republic. Even the great George Washington was eager to make his fortune on speculation on his Great Dismal Swamp project.
During the early days when we were governed by the Articles of Confederation, one of the few and most important bills passed dealt with the land of the territories. The Northwest Ordinance established the precedent of who owned and held sovereignty over the land of the territories. A rule was set when the ordinance ceded all unsettled land to the Federal Government and thereby established the public domain. The territories were to be administered by Congress. The ordinance that was passed was subsequently replaced by the Northwest Ordinance of 1789. When the measure was reaffirmed in 1789, they continued the precedent by stating that the Federal Government would be sovereign in the westward expansion and admission of new states. The Supreme Court later affirmed the authority of the federal government in “Strader V. Graham in 1851.
The Property Clause of the Constitution states in Article 4, Section 3, “Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”
Thus, the legal support for Federal authority was established. In contrast to these parameters, advocates of states rights and rugged individualism brought forth the idea that private ownership and those rights inherent in that right should hold sway. For nearly a century the power of private ownership and its consequences won out. As Americans moved west, the understandable need for resources was met. Go West young man, was the buy word, and the exploitation and the profiting from those resources marched westward along with the new settlers. This movement of frontiersman was a natural consequence as more land opened up for use and with it opportunities for a new life beckoned. This westward migration of new settlers was a powerful force, an almost overwhelming force, that required land and space for these new settlers to live in. This westward momentum took up most of the 19th Century. Whatever and whoever got in the way of this westward migration were swept aside as the nation grew and prospered.
Once this expansion matured and the nation could take a breath, people like Teddy Roosevelt and the Conservation Movement took hold and shaped the nations imagination. We realized that our resources were not unlimited. The movement sought to preserve for future generations the beauty that we have now enjoyed for some time now.
Naturally, there were those among us who still hoped to profit by the use and sale of our minerals, and our forests. In the 1970’s and 80’s we witnessed a resurgence of the idea that man should be productive by using as much of the land for profit as they could. This was when the Sagebrush Rebellion began.
In the Presidency of Ronald Reagan the exponents of using the land and the proponents of disposing of Federal Land for profit and private and state usage found a friend. James G. Watt, became Secretary of the Interior, his pro-development stance helped to stench the first Sagebrush rebellion.
The movement had a religious underpinning. James Watt was a Pentecostal Christian whose beliefs gave his executive actions meaning while Secretary. On one occasion before the House Committee on the Interior, he gave the following testimony. “To be steward for the natural resources for this generation as well as future generations. I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” February 5, 1981
On another occasion and more on point, Watt explained, ” My responsibility is to follow the Scriptures which call upon us to occupy the land until Jesus comes.” Washington Post May 24, 1981.
Around the same time, Skousen a noted Mormon, wrote about his faith and what responsibilities Mormons had in their daily lives, he said. ” The United States is divinely appointed to serve as God’s own lamp of freedom; the Federal Government violates God’s will by enforcing any kind of human equality; and that true believers must tear down the existing Federal Government to restore a godly society.”
The Bundy’s in their efforts and through the efforts of others have attempted to espouse this world view. In the case of Kleppe v New Mexico, the anti-government forces attempted to claim that Article I, Section 8, Clause 17 applies to their case of whether or not the federal government has a right to the land upon which the issue of grazing and the payment of grazing fees is germane. The court held that the rather obscure section of the Constitution applies to the District of Columbia and not to their situation.
The first Sagebrush Rebellion ended when Watts was the Head of the Interior and when the court made its decision in the Kleppe case.