An industry booster becomes a supporter of Western land

  • Cover of "A Walk Toward Oregon"


There is nothing remotely radical about Alvin M. Josephy Jr., or if there is, he hides it in his memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon. There was a comfortable childhood in Manhattan; well-to-do relatives like his uncle, the founder of the firm that published this book; a couple of years at Harvard, until his father's financial difficulties forced him to leave; a stint as a screenwriter for MGM in Hollywood, thanks to another relative; a budding career on Wall Street; service as a combat photographer in the U.S. Marines in the South Pacific; and finally, a decade as special projects editor for Henry Luce's Time magazine, then one of the world's most influential publications.

If there were an American Decade in the just-closed American Century, it was the 1950s, and Josephy was at its heart. During those 10 years, he produced special Time projects on the interstate highway system; the modern forestry that leveled vast forests and replaced them with better seedlings than nature had provided; the St. Lawrence Seaway; the Pick-Sloan dams on the Missouri River; the Colorado-Big Thompson Project that moved water from western Colorado, where nature had put it, to the Front Range, where it was needed; the Columbia Basin irrigation project and various nuclear weapon and power plants.

He was a believer in the American Dream, writing for millions of other dreamers.

If anyone should have bought a lifetime subscription to industrial progress, it was Josephy. His commute from the comfortable suburb of Greenwich, Conn., to the east side of Manhattan was an easy one, his job with Time was a privileged one, and he was being paid well to describe how the most powerful nation in the world was laying the foundation for yet more wealth and power.

But amid the new and exciting developments, Josephy saw something old and depressing: the plight of American Indians. He also began to see the destruction of the natural world caused by the progress he was extolling.

Josephy turned away from Time and a belief in the 1950s' brand of progress. He went to work for American Heritage magazine and became an historian who wrote books about Indians. Along the way, he became an environmentalist who fought progress, if progress meant the damming of rivers and the cutting of forests. Finally, he bought a small ranch in Wallowa County, Ore., and although he and his wife, Betty, never lived there year around, it attached him to the West.

Environmentalists are usually the ones who worry about America's water, but it is conservatives who should be concerned. There must be a subversive substance in our water that turns the best of this nation's privileged class into champions of conquered people and damaged or threatened land and rivers. This century's most famous turncoats were the three Roosevelts: Teddy, Franklin and Eleanor, and all influenced Josephy. He was a Teddy Roosevelt Republican until he learned, as a young man, that the Republican Party had repudiated Roosevelt because of his reformist tendencies and his passion for conservation.

The young Josephy became a supporter of Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, and after his 10 years of writing about the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Weyerhaeuser and other exemplars of progress for Time, he became a Westerner in spirit, and a supporter of the Native Americans and the land.

He was a pioneer, traveling early the path more and more Americans are now choosing.

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