From prospectors to cattlemen: Roots of the Sagebrush Rebellion

— Second in a two-part series
The romantic image of pioneer miners as gray-bearded prospector leading burros into some lonesome mountain valley is no more accurate than our conception of the fur trade. Mineral deposits on the West’s public domain were often discovered by individual prospectors, but the extraction of minerals took equipment and men, commodities the independent operator could seldom afford. Control of the gold, silver and copper quickly passed into the hands of well-financed companies.
The conflict over federal land is far older than the recent movement for states to take control of acreage within their borders, it is older than the occupation at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and older than the face-off at Cliven Bundy’s ranch. It is a story that goes back to when Lewis and Clark opened the West and stretches through the eras of fur trading, mining and massive cattle companies.
Underground mines required huge quantities of timber to guard against cave-ins. In 1897, the General Land Office reported that the steady loss of forest to mining operations “fully demonstrated the want of wisdom in placing the public timber thus free of cost at the disposal of the public. It is also unjust in granting exceptional privileges to the residents of the States, Territories.”
The problem was that the trees weren’t going to the average citizen. “Large corporations and companies have secured permits at different times to cut many millions of feet,” the 1897 report observed. And sometimes, the big operators didn’t bother with permits.
In 1853, Edward Matteson, a California miner, updated an ancient technique to expedite the extraction of placer gold — he built dams uphill from his diggings, then brought the water through a ditch and then a hose and nozzle, generating a high-pressure stream that washed tons of gravel into his sluices. It was called hydraulic mining, and it was quickly adopted anywhere mine companies had a source of uphill water. Tons of silt from these operations choked rivers and streams, exacerbating floods and, after particularly heavy runoff, depositing thick layers of mud in the floodplains and crop fields below. Often, the silt carried heavy metals and acids that killed fish and other aquatic life for miles. Once again, the public’s interest suffered while the profit from the public’s land found its way into the coffers of big companies.
Out on the prairie, the situation wasn’t much better.
Starting even a small ranch took capital. The cattleman needed a good remuda of horseflesh, the tack to saddle them and the money or equipment to keep them shod. He needed to prove up a claim on a piece of land for headquarters. And he needed some cows. The price of a Texas longhorn at the northern railheads varied between $3 and $8 a head, and that investment wouldn’t begin paying dividends until this spring’s calves had grown into 2- to 4-year-old steers. A cattleman, as opposed to a cowboy, was a man of property who might have to wait years to see a return on his investment.
In the years after the Civil War, the appetite for beef in America and Europe far outstripped the supply, and the producers made quick fortunes. It didn’t take long for investors on both sides of the Atlantic to take advantage of the situation.
The first British cattle corporation to operate in the United States formed in 1879, raising capital of $350,000 with which it bought up ranches in South Dakota and Wyoming. Over the next 20 years, 36 more British corporations invested $34 million in the Western cattle business. At the same time British capitalists were making their presence felt, well-heeled Americans from the East and Midwest were buying into the business. What had been a family-run, hand-to-mouth calling became an industry, and as was the case with most other industries of the time, the big money took complete control.
In the years of the open range on public land, the big conglomerates played the system to gain control of key tracts of land. In 1884, The New York Times reported on the General Land Office’s investigation of illegal claims on the public domain. According to the newspaper, inspectors from the Land Office had found millions of acres of illegally fenced land and claims.
In 1880, the governor of Wyoming estimated that the ranching operations in the state ran 540,000 head of cattle and about 375,000 head of sheep. Over the next three years, the number of cattle in the state rose to about 800,000, where it plateaued, and the number of sheep continued to climb, reaching more than 6 million by 1909.
The condition of pastureland across the West was essentially the same — 30 years of intense grazing had done damage to grasses and broad-leafed forage plants that would last for decades or even longer. At the same time, invasive plants like cheatgrass had been imported with contaminated seed, which would damage the rangeland in the Great Basin forever. The dreaded cattle disease brucellosis was brought to North America with infected livestock and was probably introduced into Yellowstone bison shortly after 1900 when domestic cows were used to foster young buffalo in an effort to preserve the species.
After less than a century, this is what Jefferson’s dream for his beloved Western territory looked like: a land controlled and operated by millionaires and conglomerates, many of whom had connived or simply flouted the law to control the economy and politics of the public domain. A land stripped of its pristine promise: the range overgrazed; the forests over-cut; mountainsides raw and bleeding from the pitiless extraction of precious metals; streams polluted; the great herds of game, the beaver, the sage grouse all but extinct.
The entire nation was appalled. Faced with the ruin wrought by an unfettered market and a moneyed elite, a generation of Americans began looking for a different way to realize the democratic ideal in the arid West. It began in 1872 with the creation of the world’s first national park, continued in 1890 with the protection of our first national forest, and culminated in the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, two laws that mandated better management of Bureau of Land Management lands.
The movement proceeded from the notion that our common interest is sometimes best served when we own things together. The idea of places and resources held in the public trust gained traction with wildlife in the 1840s and was extended over the next century to the great open spaces of the West’s public domain.
The form and function of the consensus has been hammered out over 100 years. It has changed with time, and it will continue to change as the people who care about the public domain change, and as the land itself changes. Finding consensus among 300 million citizens is always a challenge, and it is especially difficult when we look for consensus on managing public land in the West.
But neither history nor recent experience supports the notion that these lands would better serve America if they were in private hands. The demands big business continues to make on the public domain in the West haven’t changed; they’ve been held in check only by federal regulations that seek to control the management of national forests and BLM holdings. If these lands were to be given to the states, or sold to private interests, these smaller governing entities or owners would not have the power to resist the influence the corporations wield. Even the federal government struggles to resist that influence. Land use would quickly return to the patterns that developed in the nineteenth century. The resources on the public domain, renewable and nonrenewable, would be sacrificed to enhance profits and the public would lose its right to visit what was left.
These days, Americans are dispossessed, confined in our apartments, on our quarter-acre lots, estranged from the land that, in large part, has defined our character as a people and a nation. We are held prisoner by economics. Perhaps the only physical expression of freedom we have left is the public domain. Together, we can use it without destroying it; we can enjoy it without dividing it.
We should never give it up.  ♦
— Circle of Chiefs articles are written by those who have received the Jade of Chiefs Award for conservation reporting and coverage. The Jade of Chiefs are considered OWAA’s conservation council. The article reflects the opinion of the author. If you’d like to add to the discussion, please send a letter to the editor.
— Chris Madson is a freelance writer specializing in conservation and hunting subjects. He lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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