Sometimes, the West must be protected from itself

Today, we need to listen more carefully than ever to the ideas of Western historian, Bernard DeVoto.

 

The more things change, the more those changes echo on into the future. Today, we need to listen more carefully than ever to a voice from the mid-20th century, that of the writer and Western historian, Bernard DeVoto.

At the recent GOP convention, the party faithful approved a platform that directs Congress to give “certain public lands” to the states. It’s an old strategy, trotted out like a broken-down show horse at a county fair.

In the mid-1940s, Western policymakers, mainly Republicans, sought to eliminate the federal Bureau of Land Management, remove grazing areas from Forest Service control, and put public land on the path to state control and private ownership. One privatization bill passed the House in 1946, and even enjoyed the support of Interior Secretary Julius Krug, a Democrat. 

Sounding the alarm against these terrible proposals came DeVoto’s prescient voice from his Easy Chair column in Harper’s magazine. His warnings are still relevant seven decades later. The noted writer knew something of the West; he was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, and later wrote prize-winning regional histories. To DeVoto, the land-divestment scheme amounted to a full-frontal assault on the country’s entire conservation program. He was right: The naked power grab he warned us about continues today, with stockgrowers now joined by powerful oil and gas interests. They bristle at any restraints on their self-interest and argue that what they call “local control” is always the answer.

 But DeVoto identified a deeper problem that had — and still has — the potential to eat away at democracy itself. In summer 1947, the House Subcommittee on Public Lands began holding hearings in picturesque Western towns. Its short-term objective was to stop the Forest Service from reducing the number of grazing permits on public lands, even though overgrazing had seriously compromised many of those rangelands.

The legislative hearings were stacked with sympathetic audiences who had been primed by stock-grower trade journals to believe the worst of any federal agency, and to disbelieve “long-haired scientists” who showed that overgrazing was a problem in the West. A slew of so-called experts, ranchers, and their politicians made the case again and again for giving free rein to the stock industry. Conservationists and witnesses who agreed with the Forest Service were allotted 10 percent of the time for testimony.

Unfounded rumors that the agency planned to disallow all grazing were permitted without rebuttal. Entered into the record without clarifications or corrections, these fabrications circulated like crumpled dollar bills. Inflammatory rhetoric and showmanship overcame evidence much as it does in our time. In trying to expose the plot and set the record straight, DeVoto demonstrated that public hearings — just like party conventions — work as political theater.

Anti-monument signs at the Bears Ears public hearing where Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel heard from people in favor and opposed to a national monument designation.
Corey Robinson

Back then, as now, a national monument was in the news. In the mid-1940s, Rep. Frank Barrett, a Wyoming Republican who chaired the traveling public-lands subcommittee, hoped to abolish the Jackson Hole National Monument, which is now mostly protected in Grand Teton National Park. Today, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, hopes to prevent the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument by establishing two national conservation areas instead, a designation that offers less protection from development.

Bishop and his supporters like to tout their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which includes an alternative that they call the Bear Ears National Conservation Area. The bill's proponents like the collaborative process it enacts, yet the initiative in its flexible management plans clearly favors grazing and energy producers. The Nature Conservancy, long a partner in the process, recently announced that it cannot back this bill. In addition, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representing dozens of tribes, has declared that it wants the area protected by a national monument. Meanwhile, Bishop has proposed a “Partner Act” that would end the president’s power to use the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to create a national monument for the Bears Ears area.

DeVoto saw this coming. There is a clear line from those hearings in 1947 to the ones we’re seeing now, in 2016. The ultimate goal then was not just to stop grazing reductions or stymie national monuments; it was to discredit the federal government and its rightful concern for conservation. “The future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself,” DeVoto said.

During this presidential campaign, we can expect the Republican candidate and his followers to cite the party platform and offer yet more half-truths about public-lands management. As DeVoto showed 69 years ago, lies told often enough erode public discourse and weaken governance. “Against such psychology as this,” DeVoto implored, “only the force of the ballot can defend the public interest.”

Adam M. Sowards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental historian at the University of Idaho.

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...