This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild

This America of Ours book cover

Nate Schweber, This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild. New York, Harper Collins, 2022. 

Reviewed by John Miles

One of the greatest battles in America’s conservation history was fought early in the 1950s over a proposal of the federal government to build a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. No dams had seriously threatened a unit of the national park system in nearly fifty years since the Hetch Hetchy fight over Yosemite, lost by John Muir and his allies. The proposed Echo Park Dam would be inside a national park unit, a domino that conservationists thought might be the first of many such invasions of the national parks. Success in the campaign to stop the Echo Park Dam is usually credited to David Brower, who certainly played a major role, but in this book, Nate Schweber makes a strong case that Bernard DeVoto was the most important player in this heavyweight political fight.

On November 13, 1955, DeVoto, appeared on the CBS television show Adventure and delivered a parable. “He spoke of how the Ancestral Puebloans, like modern Westerners, constructed cities, built dams, irrigated farmland, clear-cut forests, damaged watersheds, grew prosperous, developed trade networks, art, weapons, architecture, and new technologies. Then the climate warmed, and the droughts struck. Several thousand Indians were forced to evacuate the land,” Bernard said. “Today, if man is improvident enough to deplete his resources, the price will be catastrophic.” Later, in the evening, he suffered a major heart attack and died. Nate Schweber writes, “Conservationist, historian, friend, teacher, freethinker, fighter, patriot, partner: Bernard left the world at his most himself. Had he lived a few more days he would have learned what became of his last campaign.” On December 15th, Interior Secretary Douglas McKay announced that the controversial Echo Park Dam was being dropped from the Upper Colorado River Storage Project. Reporting this, a United Press article observed that “Bernard DeVoto would have liked reading this news.”

This America of Ours explains how Bernard DeVoto, in his short life (he died at 58), filled all the roles Schweber lists above. Devoto was a gifted, incredibly hard-working, and combative writer, author of prize-winning histories of the American West and, for twenty-five years, a columnist at Harper’s, a prominent national magazine where he used his “Easy Chair” column to take on some of the greatest issues of the time, protection of public lands foremost among them. He is credited with stopping the “land grab” movement in the late 1940s, an effort to transfer public lands to the states and ultimately into private hands, defeating powerful and corrupt Nevada senator Pat McCarran and the Wyoming Stock Growers Association and their rancher allies. Schweber writes that “In twenty-six months he [DeVoto] wrote eight explosive articles for Harper’s that so acutely explain conservation issues that they could be run in tomorrow’s papers.” His prescience on that CBS television program on the last day of his life regarding the consequences of abuse of natural resources is most impressive given the situation almost seventy years later in the arid Southwest today.

Bernard DeVoto’s remarkable career is the primary focus of this book, but a thread throughout is his relationship with his wife Avis who supported him in so many ways – as proofreader, editor, researcher, advocate, and steadying influence. She is never far from the story Schweber tells, helping Bernard stand against the threats and smear campaigns from Senator McCarran, the American Stock Growers Association, and Senator Joe McCarthy and their greedy allies. She was his partner, and he hers, as their lives unfolded in surprising ways. Surprising, for instance, as Avis became a friend and advocate, adviser, and editor for the famous chef and cookbook author Julia Childs. Childs was married to State Department official Paul Childs who, like Bernard, was caught in the net of anti-communist, anti-gay, white supremacist investigations cast by McCarran, McCarthy, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and other adherents of McCarthyism. Schweber makes the case that “McCarthyism” should be considered “McCarranism,” but that’s another story.

So, while DeVoto was battling over and teaching about public lands, national parks, and dams, he was also, a “freethinker, fighter, patriot,” working for human rights and against corrupt government. Schweber observes that DeVoto “understood that threats to the environment and human freedom were conjoined, and he slashed his pen at them both as he fought against the Echo Park Dam.”  This reached its apogee in the long battle over the dam.

Hopefully the subtitle of this book attracts readers, especially “the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild.” Most histories of America’s public land barely mention DeVoto, but this book makes clear how important he was to the future of all federal public lands and especially national parks. He stirred up so much opposition to land grabs and cronyism that his enemies included not only McCarran, McCarthy, and Western stock growers, but J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI. Many publications for which he had written dropped him, “blacklisted” him as he was smeared as a Communist, or at the very least a Communist sympathizer. He was against dams like Echo Park, his enemies said, which were essential to the flourishing of the West so that the United States could fight Communism. He was in the middle of one of the darkest periods of American history.

As a journalist and for most of his life, DeVoto was not politically partisan, but in 1950 he registered for the first time as a Democrat and became a friend and advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. The Democratic platform of 1952 had a conservation stamp reflecting his thinking. The Republican platform had a plank to sell off public lands. This fact will remind readers that some things have not changed. Eisenhower defeated Stevenson in a landslide and Schweber notes that “Cronyism replaced once-cohesive federal conservation policy.”

DeVoto made several trips through the West in the 1940s and early 1950s and realized how badly underfunded the national parks were. Out of these trips came essays titled “Shall We Let Them Ruin Our National Parks,” and “Let’s Close the National Parks.” Until they were adequately funded and protected against threats like that to Dinosaur National Monument, he argued, national parks should be closed to the public. These hard-hitting writings had the desired effect of arousing the public in support of the parks and they were not, of course, closed, but they were better funded. Bernard also advocated for a Green River Canyons National Park, and rallied political support for this idea from Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, and former Wyoming governor and proponent of the Echo Park Dam, Lester Hunt, among others. Schweber explains the complex politics of the Colorado River Storage Project (CRSP) and why the Green River Canyons National Park did not come to be. The park proposal was a casualty of the convoluted and hardball politics of the CRSP, and while the Echo Park Dam was not built, neither was there to be a national park that would have protected the area from oil and gas development and other threats it faces to this day.

This America of Ours is not a biography. The full DeVoto biography is The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto by Wallace Stegner, an excellent book published in 1974. Stegner focuses on DeVoto’s career as author of social and literary criticism. Schweber has expanded on DeVoto’s role as conservationist in the final decade of his life that has proven to be historic. He has written a wide-ranging story of Bernard and Avis and their time in which both, especially Bernard, played a big role. After providing backgound on Bernard and Avis, on conservation and public lands, he writes of Senator Pat McCarran who was “a senator from a desert state who stood in the Dust Bowl and took its side.” McCarran, an openly corrupt politician, ran the Senate Western bloc and did the bidding of stockmen and others who sought to get rich off the public lands. Schweber does a fine job of describing what these guys were up to, and how DeVoto, as crusading journalist, showed a sharply critical light on their shenanigans. He writes, “Westerners figuring out the realities of their natural environment for the benefit of all and bucking the manipulations of the self-interested would become Bernard’s greatest and most controversial theme.” One wonders, as the story unfolds, if DeVoto had any idea, when in 1934 he published “The West: A Plundered Province” in Harper’s, what he was in for in the coming decades. No doubt he soon had an inkling but forged ahead intensely and courageously.

Schreber writes of the response to Bernard’s death. “The coast-to-coast celebrations of Devoto’s life were the death knell for the dam and a rebirth of the country’s commitment to the national park idea.” Schweber doesn’t point out that one consequence of DeVoto’s “Let’s Close the National Parks” column was commitment to better funding of the parks and a major program of investment in the parks that was called Mission 66. Summarizing the impact on national parks and public lands of Bernard’s work, Schweber writes,

The decision to keep national parks sacrosanct impacted all other public lands; the wildlife refuges and national monuments and the 230 million acres of forests and grasslands and deserts and canyonlands that the Devotos saved in the 1940s. They would not be put on sale. Fans wrote Avis that the preservation of the wild was Bernard’s true memorial. “I wish he could have had ten or fifteen more years because he had so much to that we need,” she said. “But he got quite a bit done.”

This America of Ours places DeVoto’s career in broad context, showing how one brilliant and sometimes quirky writer took on the issues of his time. This book is not just environmental history but a deeply human story of the DeVotos.

The book is divided into three parts, the first building background, the second telling the story of the Devoto’s campaigns, and the third describing Avis’s life after Bernard’s death. Bernard was the public figure, but Avis was a powerhouse in her own right. Adlai Stevenson had counted on having Bernard as his conservation adviser for his second run for the presidency and asked Avis if she would replace Bernard as his conservation adviser. “Avis said she wanted ‘no part of public life,’ and specified ‘I am no more equipped to be Mrs. Pinchot than I am to be Marilyn Monroe.’” Nonetheless, she carried on conservation work in her own quiet and modest way. Schweber, throughout the book, portrays Avis as a remarkable woman without whom Bernard would not have been the force that he was. In the epilogue he writes that Bernard “would grow deeply depressed about that western paradox (‘get out and give us more money’). That Bernard was able to pull through was, as always, because of Avis.”

In September 1962, Avis and others, among them freshman Montana senator Lee Metcalf, gathered in a grove in the Clearwater National Forest that had been a favorite of Bernard’s to name the grove for him and to dedicate a plaque that read BERNARD DEVOTO 1897-1955 HISTORIAN AND CONSERVATIONIST OF THE WEST. After several speeches, Senator Metcalf read a message from President Kennedy that began “I wish to send my personal best wishes to Mrs. DeVoto.” Schweber writes “Kennedy honored the sense of optimism he took from Bernard DeVoto. From Bernard, he understood that in the West, Americans had faced a choice between destroying the land and losing their freedoms, or learning a better way to live in balance with nature. The conservation revolution showed that they chose right.” Kennedy wrote that Bernard’s “knowledge of the American past and his faith in individual freedom gave him a deep and quiet confidence in the American future.” Reading this in 2022, one must ask if the confidence Kennedy saw in Bernard’s work was justified, which is certainly a question Schweber compels the reader to consider.

Anyone interested in the history of public lands and national parks should read this book. Schweber tells a marvelous and complex story in a most readable and revealing way. He excels at weaving stories of politics, Western American history, and the personal lives of the Devotos into a seamless and judiciously structured narrative. He perhaps learned this from his deep reading of DeVoto, who masterfully moved several stories at once forward in his histories of the American West. This book should revive understanding of the importance of Bernard DeVoto to conservation and saving “the wild” in America from those would destroy it in their shameless pursuit of power and wealth.

If, after reading Schweber’s book, one is motivated to learn more about how DeVoto, in his writings about the West and conservation, made his powerful case, DeVoto’s West: History, Conservation, and the Public Good edited by Edward K. Muller and published by Swallow Press in 2005, is an excellent collection. Readers will be amply rewarded and inspired by DeVoto’s prose, likely wishing he were here to tackle some of the same issues today that he so effectively addressed in the 1940s and ‘50s. Reading Schweber and DeVoto yields perspective and historical insight into the conservation challenges of the 21st century in the American West.

Order your own copy: This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild.

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