NOTE: In the West, there is an old saying to the effect that: “good fences make good neighbors.” At RANGEfire! we acknowledge our virtual neighbors on this virtual landscape. We acknowledge that there are always at least two sides to every story. When what is being said is clearly on the “other side of the fence,” we will try to acknowledge that, to make it clear that we are simply passing along what others are saying about the issues and subject matter that we talking about, even when it does not reflect our views, and may in fact be the polar opposite — which is why it is from the other side of the fence. But we think it is important for people to have an opportunity to hear the other side of the story, and know what others are saying about these issues.
OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE — What Others Are Saying:
According to Sowards, in the context of protests against new national monument designations, including Bears Ears and Owyhee Canyonlands, “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.”
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.
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.
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.”