Remembering Reagan’s Battle with the Radical Environmentalists

  • Sagebrush Rebel
  • By William Perry Pendley
  • Regnery Publishing, Washington, DC 2013
  • HC, 370 pages, US $27.95
  • 978-1-62157-156-8

  • Click here to buy Sagebrush Rebel

“With each passing day, year, and decade, Americans learn how fortunate our country was to have him as our president at such an important time.”  -William Perry Pendley

It has been famously said that Ronald Reagan “won the Cold War without firing a shot.” This was Margaret Thatcher’s short-hand testimonial to a president that pursued policies leading to a robust economic recovery, a strengthened national security posture, a largely successful foreign policy, and a nation’s renewed pride in itself, its history and its mission in the world.

Similarly, it can be anticipated that someone will one day observe from a different perspective – but in equally trenchant terms – that Barack Obama in his time, also made a decisive difference in the course of history.   Obama’s self-described “transformation” project, pursued with policies quite different – and results quite opposite – from Reagan’s, will no doubt be the stuff of future legend.  Indeed, comparing how these two Administrations tackled similar issues can be enlightening.

A special niche in this learning curve (that-was-then…this-is-now) is provided by William Perry Pendley in his 2013 book, “Sagebrush Rebel: Reagan’s Battle with Environmental Extremists and Why It Matters Today.”  Perry was a senior appointed official at the U.S. Department of the Interior in the 1980s, where he served under each of Reagan’s three Interior secretaries:   James Watt, William Clark and Donald Hodel.

Pendley’s perspectives on this one agency’s exploits in the forefront of decisions affecting critical energy, environmental, land use, and natural resources issues are informative and instructive, especially as they relate to similar matters ripped from today’s headlines.

Should federal lands and offshore areas be opened to more drilling for oil and gas?   Can developmental and recreational improvements in wilderness areas be consistent with proper environmental stewardship?  Can and should America be self-sufficient in its access to strategic minerals?  Is coal a modern-day enemy whose use should be eradicated?  Are there common-sense alternatives to burdensome environmental regulations?  Are continued Federal purchases of vast amounts of Western lands always good?  Must the federal government’s relationship with the states and the American people on environmental matters be consistently hostile and adversarial.

The answers to these questions are colored by the opposing philosophical viewpoints that animate our current politics.  But as Pendley points out from his first-hand experience, such issues and controversies are not new.   How the Reagan team handled them in its day illustrates a stark contrast compared to what is happening now.  It is essentially an untold story in popular understanding, in that it played out on the periphery of the much higher profile events and issues that dominated the news during the Reagan years and that currently dominate most histories of that period.

The rise of the environmental movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Nixon Administration were originally premised on the notion of a need for cleaning up smokestack pollution and industrial water contamination, for the conservation of public lands, and for a more thoughtful and responsible stewardship of natural resources.

But it wasn’t long before such quaint and benign attitudes were morphed at the hands of federal bureaucrats and political activists into something far different.  By the late 1970s, the Nixon-Ford teams at the Interior Department and the EPA were replaced in the Carter years by a cadre of true believers who were drinking the Kool-Aid of the then-evolving and more stridently leftist environmental movement.

Educated in the best schools and motivated as much by ideological zeal as by any real hands-on practical private sector experience, they took quick aim at aggressively righting the perceived wrongs of the economic and land use policies in place in the Western United States.  By and large, it was their belief that Federal regulatory power in their wise and well-intentioned hands could only be a force for good,  nevermind the sensitivities of  those unenlightened locals who in today’s parlance might be termed “Gruber-istically stupid” about what might be needed to be done for the greater good.

Soon the federal push to “protect the environment” was seen by many living in that region as nothing less than an overt “War on the West,” where constant fights bubbled between federal bureaucrats on the one hand and Western state officials and local businesses and property owners on the other.  Many of the same fights have remerged and continue to this day.  The issues then – as now – were many, such as grazing fees, mineral rights, endangered species, water conservation, wilderness areas being put off-limits to oil and gas drilling, to recreation and reasonable economic development, and the mining of coal and strategic minerals being hampered or shut down in one form or another in the name of progress.

A peaceful grassroots revolt against such federal overreach emerged before the 1980 presidential election calling itself the Sagebrush Rebellion, which advocated for more balanced policies that would be less heavy-handed while taking into account and offering sympathy to the legitimate concerns of Western state officials who also cared.  Counting himself among those who openly declared himself a fellow “Sagebrush Rebel” was then-former California Governor Ronald Reagan who pledged to work to change things, if he were elected.

And that is exactly what he did when he took office in 1981.   As Pendley points out through numerous examples and anecdotes, Reagan appointed key officials who shared his views and who did pursue changes in federal policies, almost immediately reversing the confrontational and hostile atmosphere in federal-state relations on environmental and resource issues.

This went a long way toward neutralizing the so-called War on the West, while at the same time pursuing reasonable approaches to environmental protection and proper land and resource management that did nothing to harm the environment, as the radical environmentalist will claim in their own distorted histories.

Comparing the Reagan record to current Obama Administration policies, Pendley suggests how Reagan today would be appalled by this president’s declared “war on coal” and his accompanying “climate action plan” with its thinly-grounded regulatory tentacles stretching far and wide across the government and negatively impacting the states and  private sector for little good reason.

Pendley notes that Reagan and his policies continue to be on the receiving end of harsh criticism from the radical environmentalists, who he describes as being people who  “are incapable of being satisfied, always demand their own way” and are lacking in “good will or a sense of fair play.”

In the current era, the pendulum of presidential politics may have swung sharply in their favor, especially with the ascension of Obama.  Yet, the policy battles and the battle for hearts and minds on environmental problems and solutions are far from over.   For those who care to know the true Reagan record on these issues and want to help craft  a solid blueprint for a future conservative approach, Pendley has provided it, based on his own first hand knowledge and long experience.

He sums up the differences in outlooks by comparing one side’s constant references to the “needs” of the “planet” and of “all living things” (not human) to Reagan’s approach which he says “insists on the preeminence of human life” and on the “dream of the American people and unborn generations to be free and prosperous.”  The one vision skirts with tyranny, while the other embodies the promise of liberty.

Gary Hoitsma served as special assistant to Ray Barnhart during Barnhart’s tenure as Administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, under President Ronald Reagan and is a former aide to U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). Mr. Hoitsma is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.