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Sagebrush rebellion becomes the newest bad guy out West

There's a counterrebellion brewing on the Western range.Its goal is to smother the so-called "sagebrush rebellion" that fired up a cantakerous West just two years ago.

Caught off guard by the initial momentum of that rebellion -- which fed on the West's collective, long-growing resentment of often burdensome restrictions on the use of federally held land -- environmentalists, outdoor enthusiasts, organized labor, and other groups are launching a counterattack.

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And they are meeting with some success. Political and public opinion analysts cite several developments, including:

* The defeat of "sagebrush" bills, designed to loosen the federal hold on Western land, in the Montana and Idaho Legislatures this year. At least part of the credit is being given to lobbying efforts by a coalition of environmentalists, sportmen's clubs, organized labor, senior citizens, and women voters.

* In Colorado and South Dakota, "sagebrush" bills were passed by state legislators, but vetoed by the governors of each state. Despite attempts to override the gubernatorial action, the vetoes held.

* In Arizona, where legislators overrode Gov. Bruce Babbitt's veto of a "sagebrush" measure in 1980, an initiative is being readied for the 1982 ballot which would kill the bill.

* In Washington, where a "sagebrush" bill was passed in 1980, a companion bill needed to make the measure law failed to pass. And in Oregon, a handful of "sagebrush"-related bills never made it out of the legislature.

In its early stages, sagebrush rebels struck a responsive chord in many a Westerner resentful of Washington's control over vast tracts of Western land. They demanded that the federal government hand over some 400 million acres of federal land to state control.

Sparked by a bill passed by the Nevada Legislature in 1979 demanding that the federal government relinquish control of the 87 percent of Nevada that is under US control, the rebellion spread in 1980 to Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Washington.

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The counterrevolutionaries have recast the sagebrush rebels' rallying issue as nothing more than "a land grab" on the part of oil and gas companies, mining operations, timber interests, and real estate speculators itching for greater access to strictly regulated federal lands.

"The [sagebrush] movement," proclaims Charles H. Callison, founder of the Public Lands Institute and a leading opponent of the original rebellion, "is just sputtering out for lack of public support."

Although few observers are so quick to write off the rebellion, they do note that the movement has been partly defused by the Reagan administration's "good-neighbor policy" of moving to relax federal regulations on the lands in question -- regulations that have been a source of irritation to Westerners.

But even more signficant, say political analysts, is the fact that the public focus of the rebellion debate is shifting from one of states' rights to land use , as sagebrush opponents begin to plot their own strategy.

"You have to appreciate the fact that the only thing new about this [ sagebrush] movement is its name," says Arizona's Governor Babbitt. He cites a similar drive in the 1940s, engineered by stock grazers resentful of the US Forest Service's attempts to reduce overgrazing of national forests.

"Hopefully the public will begin to understand that our public lands are an incredible heritage -- a heritage that can be taken away," he continues."The only guarantee it won't be taken away is a certain degree of vigilance on the part of Westerners."

Critics of the rebellion worry that poorly funded and understaffed state management agencies simply will not be able to cope if millions of acres of federal lands are simply dumped in the West's lap. And they point out that state laws generally require state lands to be managed for maximum revenues. This contrasts with federal policy, which says lands must be managed on a "multiple use" basis that weighs all uses, from recreation to grazing, on an equal basis.

So far, only Nevada has moved to implement a state management policy that would be as restrictive as current federal practices.

Given the Reagan administration's apparent interest in relaxing federal regulations rather than returning federal lands, observers say that the significance of the current counterrebellion lies not so much in actually blocking a transferral of public lands, but in the proconservation message it sends to Washington. In addition, they say, it may also anchor a number of Western issues in the 1982 elections -- particularly if US Interior Secretary James Watt continues down a prodevelopment path that promises to anger many outdoor-loving Westerners.

"You bet the Reagan administration policies of leasing everything in sight, and its tendency to relax if not emasculate environmental standards, will be a political issue in 1982," predicts Mr. Callison. "It plays right into the Democrats' hands."

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