How the West Turned

It is difficult to recognize change while living through it. However, two recent decisions involving the use of the public’s lands signal an historic political and policy transition, particularly here in the Rocky Mountain West. The first of those two is the almost unanimous rejection by western governors of the Bush administration’s five-year long attempt to punch roads into the last remaining wild lands here in the Rockies. The second is the public’s outrage at the year end congressional attempt to sell massive amounts of our commonly held land.

The ham-handed effort to open up the West’s wild places to road building was a mistake fostered by the Bush administration’s belief, or hope, that most westerners want our wild lands developed. That myth, as with most western fictions, was long ago created and paid for by those who live outside the Rocky Mountain West and is being exposed by our western governors who, challenged by Bush to encourage roading in our remaining silvers of wild places, are instead reflecting the will of the significant majority and are informing the Bush administration that westerners want these lands left alone.

That second matter, involving Congress’s midnight slam-dunk attempt to sell the public’s land, was also bucked off well before the buzzer. The outcry of opposition to that proposal led by western hunters, fisherman, and conservationists, forced its congressional riders, all Republicans, to dismount, turn tail, and head for the fences.

Those two dramatic rejections signal the beginning of the end for those western, hard right-wing populists who for two decades have been demanding the development, privatization, or turnover to them of the public’s land. The national media named them Sagebrush Rebels and, although that implies homegrown, grassroots, local control advocates, this minority of westerners was created and financed by industries and ideologues determined to get their hands on the public’s resources. For a time here in the Rockies, these self-proclaimed super patriots became a genuine political force. Adopting fashionable signatures such as “multiple use” and “private property,” they paraded their big buckled hubris across front pages and lead stories as if they spoke for a majority of Rocky Mountain westerners.

I recall the former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Barbee, telling me about his experience with some of these people back in 1991. He has since written, “I went to a meeting in Bozeman, Montana, and there were 700 people there. You can’t imagine the virulence of the outcry. I was Saddam Hussein, a communist, everything else you could think of. One lady got up, jaw quivering, used her time to say the Pledge of Allegiance, then looked at me and called me a Nazi.”

My career in the U.S. Congress overlapped Barbee’s years at Yellowstone and I have vivid remembrance of trying to reason with that same hostility, not only in Bozeman but also in Dillon, Hamilton, Kalispell and Cooke City, Montana. I understood that most of those people were well-meaning, but they harbored a misdirected anger aimed at non-existent enemies. They were victimized by the politics of resentment; a cancer spread by those who saw advantage in the economic and cultural displacements here in the West, exploited the discontent, and made their careers by promoting outrage against all government as well as against virtually every effort to preserve our valuable wild places.

With the overwhelming public objection to these latest White House and congressional schemes to road and sell the public’s land, the West has reached a political watershed. It is ironic that in this winter season of short days and long solstice nights we would find the warmth of the West’s renewal: our political spring, belief in ourselves, trust in our neighbors, the promise of a happy new year and our unfettered wild lands.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West




Pat Williams served 18 years as Montana’s Congressman. He now lives in Missoula where he teaches at the University of Montana.