Conflict and the Public Lands
When President Ronald Reagan appointed James Watt as his Secretary of the Interior, public lands issues were immediately thrust into the limelight. Watt’s proposals were headline news in the western dailies, where public lands issues customarily predominate, as well as in the New York Times and other major eastern newspapers usually little-concerned with this topic. Watt’s vision of the proper use and disposal of public lands was in direct contrast to that of his immediate predecessors and, as such, seemed a startling transformation of public land policy. Watt’s positions were hardly unusual, however. His western development policies and the demands of the “Sagebrush Rebels” who supported him, when combined with the counterclaims of conservationists and preservationists, mirror much of public lands history. Decisions governing how the public lands should be used have always been controversial. In fact, the conflict generated by these decisions has been so intense that at times the history of public-land law development reads like the same action-packed Wild West stories that it inspired.
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