The Sagebrush Rebellion

© 1986 by Douglas E. Wentz. Mr. Wentz is an associate with the law firm of Drinker Biddie & Reath in Philadelphia.

In a flurry of recent magazine and newspaper articles, authors across the country have criticized attempts by federal, state, and local governments to sell or to lease public lands for private development.[1] The “Sagebrush Rebellion,” or the movement to encourage the privatization of western public lands, has been characterized as a deceitful attempt by vested interests to channel public treasure into private pockets. At risk, say groups of leading environmentalists, are the nation’s parks and wilderness lands, if not the very air we breathe and water we drink.

In response to such criticisms, Reagan Administration officials and others involved in the Sagebrush movement generally have relied upon cold facts and “fiscal responsibility” to support their case. It is noted, for example, that Uncle Sam’s vast holdings, covering 727 million acres or about one-third of the nation’s land area, seem more than adequate to allow both the sale of selected properties and the preservation of park and wilderness lands.[2] Moreover, it is estimated that the sale by the federal government of certain properties, such as the 1774 acres at the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (that currently is being used, free of charge, by a private golf club), could raise in excess of $17 billion in revenue, providing substantial and badly needed funds in the fight to lower the national debt.[3]

There is, however, a second and perhaps more fundamental mason for supporting those who encourage the privatization of western public lands. In the context of a common property resource such as a body of water or a wilderness forest, it often is private ownership, and not government regulation, that best assures the maintenance of favorable environmental conditions. Indeed, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint, private ownership can produce incentives to preserve property for the long term, while government regulation can and has produced inefficiencies that are both frightening and real.

As an example to illustrate this point, let us consider the case of the Bristol Bay area of central Alaska, location of one of the richest runs of sockeye, or red, salmon in the world. Over the course of many years, American fisherman drew ever increasing catches from the waters of the bay until, by 1950, the salmon run had declined markedly. The Alaskan government, in an attempt to reverse the trend, set about to regulate virtually every aspect of the salmon fishing industry, and administrative rules governing fishing hours, boats, and gear increased in complexity until today they can be summarized as follows:

Bristol Bay Area—Salmon Fishery Regulations

1.       Fishing Seasons: May 1 to September 30.

2.       Fishing Periods: 9:00 a.m. Monday until 9:00 a.m. Friday or Saturday, depending on the fishing district.

3.       Gear: Set of drift gill nets in most districts

4.       Gill net specifications:

(a)       Gill net mesh may not be less than 6 3/4 inches through 9:00 a.m. June 16 and not less than 4 1/2 inches after 9:00 a.m. July 15 in one district, with different rules for different districts.

(b)       Gill nets not more than 29 full meshes in depth.

(c)       Drift gill nets not exceed 150 fathoms in length or set gill nets exceed 50 fathoms.

(d)       Maximum drift gill net on vessel not exceed 150 fathoms.

(e)       Individual allowed two set gill nets.

(f)       Operation of gill net only by person in whose name it is registered.

(g)       Set gill nets shall be operated in substantially a straight line.

(h)       etc.

5.       Identification of Gear:

(a)       Bright red flag or buoy required at the end of each drift gill net, marked with vessel license number.

(b)       When using set gill net, a marker must be placed above the high tide line directly inshore of the net.

(c)       etc.

6.       Minimum Distance Between Units of Gear: varies by district.

7.       Vessel Specifications & Operations: maximum length 32 feet.

8.       Vessel Identification: License plate with symbols at least 12 inches high.

9.       Closed waters: various areas at different times.

10.       Registration and Re-Registration:

(a)       Must register for a specific district.

(b)       Cannot change to another district before 24 hours after re-registration

(c)       [Further rules on hours and locations of local representatives.]

11.       Landing requirements: All salmon must be landed in the district from which taken.[4]

Not unexpectedly, the impact of these regulations was immediate and direct. Today, Alaska’s fishermen generally are poor, both because they are forced to use small boats and inefficient equipment, and because they can fish only a small fraction of the time and only then in designated areas. American consumers, for their part, pay an unusually high price for salmon, a price much higher than that which would be charged if efficient fishing methods were permitted. And Alaska taxpayers, of course, bear the cost of creating and enforcing their state’s myriad regulations.

And what about the salmon runs the Alaskan government’s regulations presumably were designed to protect? Ironically, rather than thriving, the salmon runs have continued to decline, and it is not difficult to understand why. Under the current non-ownership arrangement, no individual fisherman is particularly concerned with the preservation of the salmon run. In fact, given the current state of affairs, the incentives are quite the opposite! The fisherman’s best interests are served by catching as many fish as possible during any one season.

This of course contrasts sharply with the result that would be obtained if the Bristol Bay were privately held. In this case, the fisherman/owner would have not one but two goals: to use the most efficient technology to catch salmon at the least cost, and to permit enough salmon to’ survive to perpetuate the runs. The owner would be encouraged to act in a manner that is both economically “efficient” and environmentally sound.

The analogy, of course, is not limited to salmon runs and bodies of water. Some of this nation’s greatest forests, for example, already are owned or are leased by large, responsible companies such as the Weyerhaeuser Company which each year spends hundreds of thousands of dollars not only to harvest timber, but also to plant young trees for future generations. In such cases, the government’s sale of surplus timberland has assured the survival of the very forests that opponents of privatization have sought to protect.

As the above examples show, it is not necessarily destructive of environmental goals to support the privatization of public lands. Quite to the contrary, in many cases only private ownership can create the incentives necessary to produce a result that is both economically efficient and environmentally sound.

1.   E.g., Brace Hamilton and Brooks Yeager, “Paradise Leased,” Sierra 81:38-43 (March/April 1986); George Reiger, “Sagebrush Rebellion III,” Field & Stream 90:29-30 (July 1985).

2.   Randy Fitzgerald, “Uncle Sam’s Surplus Land Scandal,” Reader’s Digest, 128:33-36 (January 1986).

3.   See Fitzgerald.

4.   State of Alaska Administrative Code. Title 5, Chapter 6 (Bristol Bay Area). Art. 3 (5 AAC 06.001 – 5 AAC 06,990),

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