By synchronicity, I come across this news article as I am also reading The Western Paradox: A Bernard DeVoto Conservation Reader – a volume that combines Bernard DeVoto’s unfinished last work with many of his essays against the economic exploitation of public lands.

It’s interesting, because the subject of the article is clearly exactly the sort of person who DeVoto worked himself to death opposing – someone who is willing to do permanent damage to a public resource for short-term gain, and not even willing, but has constructed a world-view in which he is awesome to do so. Look at some of those quotes. He clearly thinks he’s some sort of a Trickster figure sticking it to Da Man, and everyone likes tricksters who stick it to Da Man. If you can convince yourself that some relatively weak opponent (the Forest Service, or the tree-huggers, or if you prefer working in a cozy east coast office you might use Ivory Tower professors, feminazis, PC liberals, there are lots of choices…) is Da Man, then you can be a cross between Bugs Bunny and Robin Hood practically every day. In your own head.

Outside your own head, of course, you’re being a spoiler and a gangster, a childish figure who causes destruction just to demonstrate power. “Nice park, shame if anything should happen to it.” DeVoto demolished the argument that the Forest Service was Da Man, coming from similar people for similar motives, back in my grandparents’ day.

Now, unfortunately, a perfect regard for the rule of law forces me to say that if this guy wins his case on a by-the-book basis, somebody is going to have to pay him some money, and he’ll walk away thinking he’s a big winner. Too much attention to him will probably just cause him to raise the price on his blackmail demands. But in a world where people still make fun of a woman who sued McDonald’s even though McDonald’s actually put her in need of skin grafts, the idea that anyone would valorize this guy for his expertise in system-playing makes me sick.

(As an aside, the whole idea of being able to “sell” mineral rights separately from the rights to the land on top of them has always struck me as a bit odd, and should probably be rethought. It seems set up mainly to privilege large corporations in extractive businesses, who can lock in future profits at low current prices, over individual humans who move around, die and pass property down, and might learn more about what their land is really worth as time goes on.)

It is really exhausting reading DeVoto’s work, and seeing how little has changed, but also inspiring.

Here’s a guy, little remembered today, who went time after time into the fray with people who would lie for profit, lie to stick it to the “socialists” (they didn’t have the phrase tree-huggers yet), and handily label anything that results in a smidgen of profit or a momentary sense of triumph for themselves as a great All-American good. And he didn’t lose. He didn’t win, exactly, but the opposition goal then as today was ultimately to get all public resources into private hands for exploitation (at the time, a few cattlemen and sheep growers were openly speaking of obtaining all the National Parks as potential grazing land) and that didn’t happen. Here’s a guy who was warning us before World War II that we needed to pay attention to watersheds and take it easier with irrigation, or the American West could find itself in a really bad fix. A guy who looked at the deserts and said that they couldn’t be what our triumphalist mythology demanded, so mythology, not the deserts, needed to yield.

The Western Paradox is the first thing I’ve read by DeVoto, but I have a feeling I’ll be coming back to him.

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