Cowboy Culture & Sagebrush Rebellions: Who Should Regulate the Wild Wild West?

By: Lauren Marshall

The mythos of the American cowboy, homesteading, tending to the land, and early mornings running cattle, isn’t quite as bygone as the lawless days of the wild wild west. Though a rare breed in our rapidly urbanizing culture, the American cowboy is alive and well in some small pockets of Bureau of Land Management (“BLM”) lands. Cowboy mythology as a political movement most often plays out in conflicts about grazing rights, conflicts that have now been colloquially referred to as Sagebrush Rebellions.

The pervasiveness of the cowboy mythos, as it pertains to land use regulation, is best understood through the lens of the philosophies that motivate it. Cowboy iconography promotes the idea that ranches are the best stewards of the land, taking good care of and perhaps even improving the quality of public lands.[1] It is the belief that grazing is integral to the economy of the west, and without it the west would be valuable to development and urban sprawl.[2] And perhaps the most romanticized and disillusioned component, the idea that cowboys embody everything that is great about America: hard-work, self-reliance, chivalry, and courage.[3]

None of these mythologies are in and of themselves a threat to public lands. However, the political movements they have inspired have led to violence and criminal activity. The west has now weathered three distinct Sagebrush Rebellions. These movements are motivated by similar philosophies: the belief that private or local control of western lands is preferable to federal control. Some rebels are emboldened by god himself[4] and others the belief that federal regulation of these lands is unconstitutional and contrary to framer intent.[5]

Most actions taken by Sagebrush Rebels have focused on attempts to pass statutes that transfer ownership of federal lands to states and localities.[6] These attempts have been generally unsuccessful.[7] However, these movements have also resulted in dangerous criminal activity that threatens public lands that belong to the nation as a whole. Criminal behavior has included bomb attacks on U.S. Forest Service Employees[8], bulldozing a U.S. Forest Service Road[9], and culminating in an armed standoff between the Bundy family and federal agents, resulting in the death of one activist.[10]

Though perhaps questionable in their motivations and methodologies, these political movements do pose important questions about how we have decided to regulate public lands. Would private parties who live on, care deeply for, and intimately depend on the health of the land do a better job caring for it? Can an “absentee landlord”[11] like the BLM or the U.S. Forest Service appropriately regulate a west he’s never seen or experienced? Perhaps there is a place for cowboys in modern culture.

[1] Ann Brower, John Page, Amanda Kennedy & Paul Martin, The cowboy, the southern man, and the man from the snowy river: the symbolic politics of property in Australia, the United States, and New Zealand, 21 Geo. Int’l Envtl. L. Rev. 455, 466 (2009).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Matt Canham, Mormon Cliven Bundy says God showed him path to avoid civil war, The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 8, 2014

[5][5] Jaime Fuller, The long fight between the Bundys and the federal government, from 1989 to today, The Washington Post, Jan. 4, 2016.

[6] Johnathan Thompson, The first Sagebrush Rebellion: what sparked it and how it ended, High Country News (Jan. 14, 2016)


[8] Timothy Egan, Court puts down rebellion over control of federal land, New York Times (Mar. 16, 1996)

[9] Id.

[10] Rick Bass, Public lands and the Bundy family’s lost cause, Chicago Tribune (May 12, 2017)

[11] William P. Pendley, The Federal Government Should Follow the Constitution and Sell Its Western Lands, National review, Jan. 19, 2016,

Cowboy Culture & Sagebrush Rebellions: Who Should Regulate the Wild Wild West?

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