One of my favorite songs by the late country legend George Jones, “Who’s Going to Fill Their Shoes,” calls to mind the hits of country greats like Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and he wonders: “Who’s going to fill their shoes?”. Who will stand so tall?… Who will give their heart and soul to reach you and me?
These lines reminded me of a different kind of westerner, and I wonder in the 21st century who will fill their shoes and stand this tall.
Bernard DeVoto is one of the subjects of “This America of Ours: Bernard and Avis DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild” by Nate Schweber. It is surprising that they are not well known, especially in the West, given that their life and work defied politics as usual in the 1940s and 1950s and saved federal parks and lands whose Americans still profit today.
His main battle was with Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada who was conspiring with cattle and sheep ranchers to get Congress to authorize the sale of public land to states whose politicians could then turn it over to private interests. i.e. their supporters and cronies. That certainly rings a bell with today’s Republican politicians, including Idaho, who see strong interest in getting their hands on our public lands.
Bernard DeVoto was in many ways an unlikely enemy of the politicians of the day trying to sell federal land to their cronies.
DeVoto, though a Utah-born Westerner, would head east, attend Harvard University, and eventually join its faculty for a time. He was also a prolific author, including a series of Western history books that won him both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
As the author of the influential “The Easy Chair,” a column he wrote for Harper’s Magazine for 20 years, DeVoto found his weapon to fight for public lands and in the process got caught up in America’s shameful history when Senator Joe McCarthy was busy blacklisting prominent Americans as communist sympathizers.
McCarthy’s nonsensical targeting of DeVoto, something he likely did given his close friendship with Senator McCarran, was pure nonsense. DeVoto volunteered for World War I and voted Republican for most of his life, despite his alliance with Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson who agreed with DeVoto’s concerns about attacks on public lands.
DeVoto was not the stuffy academic to take McCarthy’s attacks by sitting down. He hit the lecture circuit and spoke about the Bill of Rights and the protections it provided for Americans. He traveled throughout the West, warning Westerners of cabal ranchers and rapacious Washington politicians trying to sell off federal lands.
The 1947 Idaho Legislature took up DeVoto’s warnings and passed a memorial declaring that the handing over of federal lands to private interests would “result in feudal ownership and private property and restriction of human liberties”.
As for Senator McCarran, he was clearly DeVoto’s public enemy number one. At one point, McCarran withheld National Park Service funding just to flex his congressional muscle and show his disdain for federal lands. DeVoto brutalized McCarran in an ‘Easy Chair’ column, ‘The West Against Itself’, which has become a classic on how to confront the rich and powerful who use public office to enrich themselves at the expense of US national treasures .
Besides his plots to sell public land to the states, McCarran also drafted an anti-immigration bill in 1952 with not-so-subtle anti-Semitic restrictions against Jewish immigrants. It is no surprise that in today’s world it has become controversial in Nevada that McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is named after a public official who, together with Joseph McCarthy, did so much damage to civil liberties and conspired to sell federal lands to private interests. .
The DeVotos’ legacy of saving millions of public lands by exposing politicians conspiring on behalf of cattle and sheep ranchers was a team effort. Bernard DeVoto’s wife, Avis, was an equal part of the DeVoto success story. A constant companion and advisor, she carried on his environmental legacy after his untimely death when he was struck down by a heart attack at age 58.
Idaho finds its way into DeVoto history in more ways than one. A critical meeting in Boise is where DeVoto heard whistleblowers explain how the land grabbers were planning to steal public land. For thwarting these efforts and all he has done in protecting federal lands, a senator proposed naming the present-day Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest after Devoto, but Republican Senator Herman Welker of Idaho blocked the effort. Welker’s policy was a carbon copy of Senator Joe McCarthy’s that his nickname in Washington was “Little Joe from Idaho”.
Bernard DeVoto’s legacy had the final say when it came to Idaho. In far northwest Idaho is a grove of western red cedars, some of the tallest trees in the country. Among his many trips across the West to defend public lands, he loved to visit this grove in Idaho. After his death, his ashes were scattered in what is now the DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove. A bronze plaque reads: “In memory of Bernard DeVoto 1897-1955 Western historian and ecologist.
Author Nate Schweber’s masterful treatment of the DeVotos’ crusade to save America’s wilderness ends by claiming that Bernard DeVoto gave his life, defending public lands and the National Park Service. In Wallace Stegner’s biography on DeVoto, Avis is quoted as calling her husband “the bravest man I have ever known.”
This brings us back to the original question. Who will fill his shoes?
We know who will take the place of public land grabbers like McCarran. In 2019, Republican Senator Mike Lee of DeVoto’s home state of Utah proposed selling off public land to fund public schools, which the Salt Lake Tribune described as selling the cow. to buy milk.
Unfortunately, the Republican zeal to cede public lands to private interests is alive and well in Idaho, as evidenced by the speeches and campaign promises of many elected Republicans.
A 2016 Wilderness Society report found that Idaho had sold about 1.7 million acres of land for development, often cutting off access to public lands traditionally used for recreation. To make matters worse here in Idaho, the Idaho Land Board is mandated by law to manage public lands for profit, not for public access. These are difficult headwinds to manage for those who appreciate the wilderness of Idaho, especially in a largely one-party state.
Who’s gonna fill DeVoto’s shoes? The days of electing a Democrat like Frank Church are long gone, but the legacy of his fight and success for public lands must be our model for our own advocacy on behalf of the wilderness of the country. ‘Idaho. It will take all of us. None of us can afford to sit on the sidelines.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He hosts Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and is a regular columnist for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as lieutenant governor of Illinois and 10 years as a state legislator.