Environmentalism and Its Opposers

            In the second half of the twentieth century, environmentalism grew enormously. The expansion of this movement can be seen through the growth of groups such as the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club as well as the passing of legislation such as the Wilderness Act of 1964. As Turner discusses, the environmentalism of the period sought to protect parks, public lands, wilderness, and prevent threats to the environment caused by pollution. Despite environmentalism’s gained popularity during this era, western opposition groups such as the sagebrush rebellion and the wise use emerged to combat the governmental effects of environmentalism.

            The sagebrush rebellion, the first of these opposition movements, was created in response to the expanding “scope of the wilderness system” and the growing of federal lands in the name of preservation (130). As Turner writes, the sagebrush rebellion was a “populist protest against public land reform supported by western citizens, the natural resource industries, and local and state governments in the West” (131). The dominant ideas of this rebellion dealt with the right to private property, individual states’ rights, western sovereignty, and a minimized role of the federal government (131). Among these ideas, states’ rights were at the forefront of the language used by the sagebrush rebellion. Turner writes that the rebels “presumed that the states could manage the land in keeping with local interests, giving priority to free enterprise and dispensing with the federal government red tape…the transfer of federal lands to the states [was] its core policy goal” (132). With the belief of rights backing their argument, the sagebrush rebellion opposed the environmentalist movement that expanded federal lands and protected wilderness.

            The wise use movement emerged as a “grassroots campaign that engaged westerners in politics and supported traditional western communities” (137). The wise use supported similar ideas to the sagebrush rebellion but aimed at painting themselves as a social movement that promoted the rights of citizens such as rights to private property and gun rights. Turner writes that “what most distinguished the wise use movement from the sagebrush rebellion was its emphasis on defending the basic constitutional rights of Americans” (140). With the belief that they were defending constitutional rights, the wise use movement sought to “remain free” and stop “dangerous encroachments” of the federal government (141).

            As Turner discusses, the opposition of the sagebrush rebellion and the wise use movement shaped and defined conservatism during this period. In naming the similarities between sagebrush and the New Right, Turner writes “the basic concerns about the expansion of federal power were similar to those expressed by conservative movements elsewhere in the country” (132). The emphasis of states’ rights in these groups was also an integral part of conservative politics at the time. As well as states’ rights, anti-environmentalism, and conservatism both highlighted “rights-based claims to individual liberty and property” (141). These movements also helped shape the reverence for special interest groups in politics as industry and corporations largely backed opposition particularly during the Regan administration (137).

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