The bright orange and black buttons with the silhouettes of a skinny cowboy and a forlorn-looking cactus read: "Welcome to the West. Property: U.S. Govt."
In a region where jack rabbits and coyotes still outnumber the population, these buttons have become the trademarks of a land revolt designed to strip from the federal government its ownership of most western land.
Nevadans know the revolt as "the sagebrush rebellion." Some federal offficials consider it a dagger aimed at the heart of the Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that manages most public lands in the West. Critics of federal land management policies-especially in Alaska, Utah and California-see the protest as the cutting edge of a regional movement that could result in a successful legal challenge to federal ownership of most of the West.
"We're tired of being pistol-whipped by the bureaucrats and ambushed and dry-gulched by federal regulations," says Nevada state Sen. Normal Glaser, and Elko cattle rancher who is the author of a bill that would return federal lands in Nevada to state ownership.
This legislation, co-sponsored by a majority of the heavily Democratic legislature, exempts Indian, Department of Defense and reclamation lands from the takeover. Even so, it would have the effect of changing the ownership of four-fifths of Nevada, 86.6 percent of which is owned by the federal government. Approval of the legislation would transfer 53 million acres of arid land, much of it covered with sagebrush, from federal to state ownership.
Far-fetched as the idea sounds, it is taken seriously in Nevada. And one federal lawyer, giving his opinion on condition that he not be identified, acknowledged that there are "sound arguments in behalf of Nevada's position, if the state can ever get its case before the U.S. Supreme Court."
A 19th century U.S. Supreme Court case decided that Alabama and not the federal government was entitled to public lands within Alabama boundaries at the time of that state's admission into the union. The court found that the new state should be admitted "on an equal footing with the original states in all respects whatsoever."
Nevada came into the union under the same law. Aware of the high court's decision in the Alabama case, Congress in 1864 required the Nevada territorial legislature to renounce all claims on public land as a condition of admission.
While some Nevada legal authorities always had regarded this requirement as unconstiutional, they never have been able to get their case into court because the federal government invoked its sovereign immunity power to prevent any lawsuit. But Glaser believes that passage of the takeover bill probably would lead to the arrest of Bureau of Land Management officials and force the federal government into court to get its land back.
The legislation is being watched closely in the West, where the federal government is far and away the leading land owner. In eight Western states-ranging from 43 percent of Arizona to 96 percent of Alaska-the federal government holds vast ownership. In contrast, the federal government owns only 26 percent of the District of Columbia and no more than 12 percent of any state outside the West.
Hidden behind the ownership of tracts of virtually waterless grazing land and desert is some highly valuable property. In Nevada, for instance, the federal government owns 60,000 acres in Las Vegas, including some $10,000-an-acre parcels on the Las Vegas strip.
Nevada critics say that federal ownership has driven up land and housing prices in towns and cities throughout the West because urban communities have no room to expand.
"Our central Nevada towns are islands in a sea of federal property," says state Sen. Richard Blakemore of Tonapah, whose district includes 42 percent of Nevada. "There is no place they can build except up."
This federal pressure has made many urban Nevada legislators sympathetic to the sagebrush rebellion," whose leadship is drawn from rural counties.
Ranchers and prospectors, in particular, complain of inconsistent federal policies. Eastern Nevada rancher Dean Rhoads, who is a co-author of the takeover bill, says he was promised by federal officials 20 years ago that he could exchange some privately owned tracts of grazing land with the federal government to give him contiguous ownership. He says he has never been allowed to accomplish the transfer.
Not everyone in Nevada supports the rebellion. State Sen. Clifford Young of Reno, a liberal Republican attorney and former congressman, contends that the cost of managing the now federal lands would be more than in the revenues received.
"The supporters of this bill have seized hold of an emotional issue and are running with it," Young contends."They're not computing the cost."
But the bill's sponsors maintain that the revenues that would be gained by returning federal land to the state tax rolls would far offset any management cost.
Taken as a group, the "sagebrush rebellion" leaders seem unlikely revolutionaries, even for a state whose most notable distinction to date has been its persistent legalized gambling. Particularly unrevolutionary is Glaser, a genial 57-year-old Democrat who has been in the legislature, off and on, since 1960.
However, Glaser is willing to lead in unexplored directions. On one wall of his legislative office there is tacked a wooden sign that proclaims: "Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."
If the sagebrush rebellion succeeds, this particular trail could lead to the biggest land takeover in the history of the West.