Book Review – Sagebrush Rebel by William Perry Pendley

Sagebrush Rebel coverMr. Pendley, currently president and chief legal officer of Mountain States Legal Foundation, served in the Reagan administration as deputy assistant secretary for energy and minerals in the Department of the Interior. That experience gave him an insider’s view to write about “Reagan’s battle with environmental extremists and why it matters today,” the book’s subtitle.

This is a well-written, very detailed, and meticulously-documented book that shows how Reagan’s policies brought America out of the economic disaster of the Carter administration. Sadly for America, presidents after Ronald Reagan did not follow his policies.

To give you the flavor of this book, I will start with a quote from the last chapter:

“When President Reagan took office, he faced the worst economy since the Great Depression. What was the economy like when Barack Obama became president? Was it worse than the one Reagan faced, or not as bad? That is irrelevant. What matters is what each man did and the results. Reagan slashed federal expenditures, cut taxes, and reduced regulation, including opening federal lands to the private sector to discover and develop energy. The economy boomed. Obama launched a trillion-dollar ‘stimulus,’ unleashed federal lawyers and regulators, and increased taxes. The economy bombed.”

Ronald Reagan was an environmentalist, but he knew the difference between pragmatic conservation and mindless preservation. He also knew that conservation of the environment was best done when the economy is strong.

Pendley begins in Chapter One by recounting how President Carter’s “War on the West” incited the “Sagebrush Rebellion.” Reagan intended to quell the rebellion by opening up federal land, particularly the Outer Continental Shelf, for oil and gas exploration and development. That theme continues in Chapters Two and Three. Reagan instituted a “good neighbor policy” toward the states. In his first inaugural address Reagan said, “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”

In Chapter Four: “We print what we know – so we print lies,” Pendley discusses the press and especially their attack on Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt. “What environmentalists find so infuriating about Watt is not just that he disagrees with them, but that he challenges their most deeply held convictions…”

In Chapter Five: “Modern day Luddites,” Pendley details the clash between radical environmentalists and James Watt. It was “a battle between two competing systems of government: between big and powerful New Deal-style government run by progressives and technocrats, … and a limited government that emphasized individual and economic freedom.” And “Reagan was about to present the first presidential challenge to the moral authority of the environmental establishment…”

Chapter Six deals with “The pit bull of environmental laws,” the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Reagan said, “Since the beginning of life on this planet thousands of species…have disappeared…as part of the evolutionary process in an ever changing world….shouldn’t we now and then remember nature’s part in the elimination of some species and separate the serious from the silly in our own policy?”

Pendley recounts the history of ESA and its predecessors. Reagan changed the emphasis from mainly just listing species to trying to actually recover species. This change in policy and procedure is what saved the California Condor. About environment groups, Pendley notes “litigation is their business, and business is good.” Pendley also notes that what is wrong with ESA “is how it has been implemented by the FWS [Fish & Wildlife Service], enforced by environmental groups, and interpreted by federal courts.” “Today, lawsuits by environmental groups are driving nearly everything the FWS does regarding the ESA.”

By the way, did you know the ESA has a sunset clause and that it must be reauthorized periodically by Congress? Congress has failed to reauthorize ESA since 1992. But like a zombie, it survives on yearly appropriations of funds, sometimes hiding as a rider in another bill.

Chapter Seven, “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined,” deals with America developing its mineral resources, especially strategic minerals, something the Carter administration was indifferent about.
“Reagan’s plan emphasized ensuring the availability of federally owned land for mineral prospecting and development so as to ‘achieve proper balance between wilderness and mineral needs of the American people.’” That plan was, of course, opposed by environmental groups.

Chapter Eight deals with federal land grabs and the growth of the National Park Service. Chapter Nine, “Inside the beltway” recounts how Reagan set about to tame the federal bureaucracy. Chapter Ten deals with America’s great coal resources and Obama’s war on coal. Chapter Eleven, “A department of miscellany” deals with many smaller issues.

In Chapter Twelve, Pendley sums up the state of the Union and Reagan’s philosophy: “…as long as we remember our first principles and believe in ourselves, the future will always be ours…”

Pendley does a good job with this book as both an inside look at history and political philosophy, and as a cautionary tale.

This book will be officially released July 8 and will be available from the publisher, Regnery Publishing, Amazon, Barnes & Noble as well as book stores.

[This review was originally published in the Arizona Daily Independent]