Public lands are Americans’ birthright. It’s our duty to defend them against new landgrabs

“This is your land we are talking about,” the controversial, firebrand historian and conservationist Bernard DeVoto wrote in 1947, paraphrasing Woody Guthrie’s fresh folk classic.

Bernard and his stylish, sharp-witted wife, Avis DeVoto, had returned from an epic road trip across the Lewis and Clark trail, crossing the states of the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon. On their way, they researched America’s wild, public lands and philosophized about the spiritual connection between the freedom of movement they allowed and the freedom of thought they inspired.

In six magnificent national parks, they lifted their eyes to thrusting snowcapped mountains; peered down at roiling rivers churning through sculpted canyons; squinted at sunlight glinting off lakes of pristine indigo.

Yet on the road, looking at public lands, and listening to the people who lived among them, they discovered a plot – birthed by the Nevada senator Pat McCarran – to sell away nearly all of it.

As many as 230m acres constituting the natural patrimony that is the birthright of every American; the wilderness that made America the world’s first country to enshrine natural resource conservation as a national priority. Demagogic McCarran would have liquidated the landscapes of the American soul for quick cash to a politically connected few.

Writing in Harper’s magazine, DeVoto called the devious plan a “landgrab”. He decoded McCarran’s anti-regulatory rhetoric as: “Get out and give us more money.”

The DeVotos’ courageous investigative journalism sparked the national outrage necessary to save the American wild from sale in the 1940s. But the movement to sell off public lands would rise again with the “sagebrush rebellion” in the 1970s, and again in 2014 when its totemic leader became the Nevadan Cliven Bundy. Patriarch of a family of anti-government agitators, Bundy is a scofflaw rancher who over two decades racked up more than a million dollars in unpaid fees for grazing thousands of his cattle on public lands, despite receiving huge federal agricultural subsidies. (“Get out and give us more money.”)

DeVoto would say that the sun never set on a bad idea in the west. Landgrabbers will ride again, and the way the DeVotos successfully raised the alarm in midcentury offers a model of how it can be stopped in the future.

The DeVotos paid attention and spoke out. Public lands conservation was vigorously promoted by President Theodore Roosevelt, a Republican, but it dwindled until it was resurrected by his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat.

After FDR died, conservation ebbed so low that its opponents moved in for their long-awaited kill. The DeVotos were among the only Americans in the late 1940s with a deep knowledge of public lands. They also had a mass audience from writing award-winning books, plus explosive articles in Harper’s and the Saturday Evening Post, to explain the value to their fellow citizens. They eventually built a broad coalition of allies – some of them strange bedfellows.

By the 1950s, the landgrab movement had shape-shifted into plans to build dams that would flood wildlife-rich national parkland in Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Wyoming’s Yellowstone, Montana’s Glacier, California’s King’s Canyon, Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave and Tennessee’s Fort Donelson national battlefield.

The first domino to fall was to be Dinosaur national monument, the awesome canyon country straddling the border of Colorado and Utah. In defense of national monuments, the DeVotos inspired pro-conservation commentary from such environmentalists as Ansel Adams, Aldo Leopold and Horace Albright. Also, big-game hunter Arthur Carhart, and literary titans Wallace Stegner and Alfred Knopf.

But it was Bernard’s roping in of national deficit hawks – who were not his allies in other conservation matters – that gave his coalition leverage to break the disproportionately powerful grip on federal appropriations held by pro-dam western senators in small-population states.

The DeVotos were fearless. Landgrab leader McCarran attacked conservation in the 1930s by dismissing public lands supporters: a range of small ranchers, hunters, Native Americans, anglers, irrigation farmers, hikers, municipal water suppliers, wildlife lovers and more. McCarran’s cronies were big corporate ranchers and real estate developers.

In the 1940s, as McCarran grew more paranoid and powerful, he demonized his opponents as disloyal to America – probably communists. In the 1950s, the flailing Wisconsin senator Joe McCarthy donned McCarran’s persona. McCarthy saw McCarran as a role model, an American hero. Outrageous, headline-grabbing accusations by McCarthy were usually amplified versions of what McCarran already said.

McCarthy attacked magazines that published Bernard DeVoto. The DeVotos were blacklisted from some of the largest ones in the US, a blow both to the hope for public lands, and to the DeVotos’ livelihoods. Creatively, they compensated by brainstorming ideas for a growing readership of American women.

At Avis’s suggestion, Bernard wrote about kitchen knives in Harper’s. It earned him a 1952 fan letter from Julia Child, then an aspiring cookbook author living in Paris. Avis vowed to make her a star, and a lifelong friendship blossomed. Child stayed an environmentalist for the rest of her life; she repeatedly asked the DeVotos how she could lend her support to public lands conservation (in her phrasing: “the public lands business”).

Come Donald Trump’s presidency, the similarities between what the DeVotos saw on western public lands at their nadir, and what had returned to the west, were nearly, and tragically, exact.

The DeVotos fought the destruction of a national monument in Utah; Trump ordered two national monuments in Utah, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, slashed by 85% and 50%, respectively (Joe Biden reversed this order).

The DeVotos watched Native American nations in the Dakotas protest against destruction of their homelands by a dam in 1946; in 2016 they protested again against the Dakota Access pipeline, whose oil threatened their water and air.

The DeVotos saw legions of small ranchers vanish under the monopolistic pressure of agribusiness – and that trend is continuing.

The DeVotos saw the National Park Service so underfunded it struggled to protect natural and historic treasures amid a tourist surge – that, too, continues.

The similarities between the Trump’s rhetoric and that of McCarran and McCarthy are clear as mountain air. All three obsessed over exacting vengeance on their “enemies”, all three slandered immigrants and journalists, all three demonized their dissenters as disloyal to America. All three spread their big lie. None were friends of public lands.

For McCarran and McCarthy, the big lie was that the nation was filled with communists. For Trump, it was that the 2020 election was stolen. The January 6 committee showed just how close that big lie came to violently destroying the American experiment, that imperfect but still precious thing whose egalitarian ideals grew out of the American wilderness. The DeVotos defied McCarthy and McCarran by defending it.

A statement Bernard made for Dinosaur national monument in 1954 echoes just as resoundingly today. He was talking about wilderness, but he could be talking now about its heir, democracy.

“It can’t ever be replaced, and in a hundred years from now how will anyone know at first hand what wonders there were in this America of ours?”

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