Sagebrush Rebels would rather fight than win

As long as there are public lands in the West and westerners who chafe under government restrictions - in other words, as long as the West survives - there will be a Sagebrush Rebellion.

The name may change. These days, some rebels rally round a County Supremacy flag, while others see themselves as foot soldiers in a grand, if somewhat amorphous, War for the West.

Whatever name it goes by the Sagebrush Rebellion is grounded in the unchanging reality of western communities surrounded by public land. Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in Nevada. Around 87 percent of the state is owned by the federal government. It is no coincidence that the Sagebrush Rebellion has found a natural base of support here over the years.

So it is interesting to watch the latest flare-up in the Sagebrush State - a battle over a dead-end dirt road leading to a wilderness area in Jarbidge, Nev. - to see where the rebellion is going.

The short answer is nowhere fast. But there is more to the story.

The Jarbidge road will be the subject of a special Congressional hearing in Elko, Nev., in mid-November. The hearing is being held by Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, R-Idaho, chairman of the House Resources subcommittee on forests and forest health. Chenoweth recently married Wayne Hage, a Nevada rancher and long-time Sagebrush Rebel who has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit accusing the U.S. Forest Service of regulating him out of business. Chenoweth plans to call Forest Service employees on the carpet and give the Sagebrush Rebels an opportunity to vent their fiery anti-government rhetoric.

Even before the hearing began, Chenoweth succeeded in intimidating the Forest Service supervisor in Nevada. Gloria Flora resigned in protest rather than face what she called a public inquisition. Her resignation added drama to the Jarbidge story and made the Sagebrush Rebellion appear stronger than ever.

But the real story here is not to be found in the high dudgeon of political rhetoric. It is in the tiny old mining town of Jarbidge in the northernmost reaches of Nevada near the Idaho border. Home to about 30 year-round residents, the town sits in a narrow canyon alongside the Jarbidge River. A dirt road runs up the canyon through a national forest to the Jarbidge wilderness area. Four years ago, the uppermost mile and a half of the dirt road was washed out in a flood.

And that is where things got messy, because the river is also home to bull trout, a fish listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The Forest Service wanted to rebuild the road to keep local residents happy and avoid a skirmish with the Sagebrush Rebels who control the Elko County government and are always looking for a fight with the feds. But environmentalists sued to protect the fish and the Forest Service desisted. So the county sent in its own road graders and then the Forest Service had to repair the damage.

At that point, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., asked his staff to try to resolve the conflict. The various parties - local citizens, environmentalists, and the Forest Service - got together and came up with a compromise: instead of rebuilding the road, which could damage trout spawning habitat and inevitably get washed away again, they recommended building a narrower trail that could be used by hikers and off-road vehicles.

But no sooner was the compromise announced then the Sagebrush Rebels in Elko County, including State Assemblyman John Carpenter, called for a volunteer work party to reconstruct the road in October. Before the work could begin, however, U.S. District Court Judge David W. Hagen issued a temporary restraining order to stop the rebellion. The judge ordered all of the parties involved - the citizens, the Elko County government, and the U.S. Forest Service - to enter mediation talks supervised by the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, which Congress created last year.

That's not a bad idea. When I visited Jarbidge in October, and watched the promised rebellion end with a few diehards chucking rocks in the river in defiance of the court order, I also found a strong undercurrent of support for a compromise. The town of Jarbidge is completely dependent on wilderness tourism. An extra mile and a half of hiking or horseback riding will not deter people who come to Jarbidge to get away from roads. Restoring the river fits this picture.

There are more and more people in Jarbidge, and around the West, who see the need to cooperate with the federal government. But the Sagebrush Rebels prefer the fight they can't win, to the resolution they can. That's why the Sagebrush Rebellion will never succeed. But it is also why the Sagebrush Rebellion will always be with us.

Jon Christensen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colo ( He lives in Carson City, Nevada.


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