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By: Robert Janis

A Sagebrush Rebellion Swirling through Western States

Take Back Utah 8/8/09 from Ghost_Rider on Vimeo.

For years now people involved with off-road riding have been concerned about access to public land. They simply want to be able to go to a national park or lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management to ride their ATVs and enjoy the scenery. To many of these recreationists it doesn’t matter who manages the land as long as they can get to that trail or road they have been hearing about.

However,in the western states public access is just one issue in an overall battle on who has jurisdiction over the land--the counties and states or the federal government. When you look at statistics on the percentage of a western state’s lands that are actually controlled by the federal government, it may astound you. For example, did you know that 84.5 percent of Nevada is not controlled by Nevada? It is under the jurisdiction of the federal government.  As far as other western states are concerned, the feds control 69.1 percent of Alaska, 57.4 percent of Utah, 53.1 percent of Oregon, 50.2 percent of Idaho, 48.1 percent of Arizona, 45.3 percent of California, and on and on. Check out the map and article at

Obviously, people who live in the western states are angry, and many are rebelling. There’s a name for this discontent. It’s called the Sagebrush Rebellion, and these people are fighting to take their land back.

Michael Swenson is executive director of Utah Shared Access Alliance (USA-ALL) and one of the initial organizers of the Sagebrush Rebellion in Utah. “We have been seeing a resurgence beginning in 2008 or 2009,” he began. “It’s all over the west. Not just in Utah. Folks are fed up with the tyrannical type control that the federal government has put on citizens concerning the management of public land.”

According to Swenson, it all started in Utah with a rally in August 2009 attended by 3,000 to 4,000 people who gathered in downtown Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah. “The folks were of all types, not just off-roaders, although they were the most predominant group represented. There were also miners and loggers, mountain bikers, photographers, horseback riders, cattlemen. All types of OHV and recreational vehicles were there.” It was followed by another rally in August 2010 attended by more than 5,000 people. Another rally is scheduled for August, 2011.

During the years the movement has grown, said Swenson. Today, groups that are part of the movement in Utah include the Utah Shared Access Alliance, which Swenson said is the driving force. He noted that there are many local OHV and Jeep clubs as well as the Utah Farm Bureau Federation, Utah Mining Association, Utah Woolgrowers Association, Utah Cattlemen’s Association, the Utah Multiple Use Coalition including the rural electric, the rural telephone companies and the Rural Water Users Association. “We are a broad-based group who want to see better multiple use of the land.”

Swenson said that the movement has mobilized its following through Internet websites, social media, and more. “When events are occurring, we have radio, television and billboard ads promoting them and informing people how they can get involved.”

The movement’s plans now are to target and lobby the federal government and local legislatures. “We have worked with county commissioners and state legislatures in other states, not just in Utah. States have tools at their disposal if they are willing to stand up. “In Utah we have taken some very aggressive steps. We’ve passed laws and resolutions; there have been court suits that we and others have engaged in. They are not just non-government organizations, but also local governments including counties and states that are engaged in litigations. And, there have been some successes.” The goal, said Swenson, is to allow the states to manage the public lands within their own borders.

One Utah legislator who has been an aggressive Sagebrush rebel is Representative Mike Noel. He and a gentleman named Chris Brimhall developed the first rally and created Take Back Utah. Noel raised $15,000 from the multiple use community to stage the rally at the capitol. He also got the governor of Utah and 20 state legislators as well as two U.S. senators and two representatives to attend the 2009 and 2010 events. He has been involved in the fight for about 13 years. He entered the battle when the Bureau of Land Management and Kane County, Utah tried to sell off grazing permits to the Grand Canyon Trust, who then planned to retire the permits, thus, in general, ending grazing on lands administered by the BLM. It was also about that time that Kane Country tried to shut down access to public roads. “I and another Kane County rancher sued the county commissioners and got a court injunction stopping them from closing down the roads,” said Noel. “I then started an organization called People for the U.S.A. in three different counties of the state to engage in the battle,” he said. In 2001 he won his seat in the Utah State Legislature and has been fighting ever since to keep roads open.

According to Noel, perhaps the best tactic to stop the federal government from managing lands in a state is through litigation. “The best way to make head way is to get judicial validation,” he said. “That is what we are doing, and we are being successful.” Noel said that he has been working closely with the Kane County Commissioners. “They were the only group that was willing to stand up and fight,” said Noel. He noted that he and the commissioners have won two big cases in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court. He added that he is helping to get another case started in Garfield and in other counties throughout Utah.

He also said that he has enlisted the support of Utah’s governor, Gary R. Herbert, and he added that the governor is getting engaged. “We’ve gotten a bill through this year’s legislature that gives two more attorneys to the Attorney General’s office and two more attorney ‘types’ into the Public Land Office of the Constitutional Defense Council.” He added that the legislature has also permitted the spending of $500,000 to finance litigations. “Now we are going to take on all these road issues, and we will file a massive quiet title action against the federal government. So, the state, as a sovereign, has stepped into the battle along with the counties,” he said.

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