Commentary: DeVoto’s fight for the wild echoes today
This summer’s devastating flash flooding in Moab was a stark reminder of the power of water on our drought-parched landscape. And while the severity of such events appears to be increasing because of climate change, sudden downpours and the resulting damage and threat to human life is not a new Utah phenomenon.
Indeed, a similar dramatic event in the mountains above Ogden almost 100 years ago caused one of our most famous former residents to embark on a lifetime crusade to preserve wildlands so that they could better protect us from such disasters.
The story of Bernard DeVoto’s conservation awakening is told in Nate Schweber’s recently published book, “This America of Ours: Bernard DeVoto and the Forgotten Fight to Save the Wild.” Schweber will discuss “This America” at the Trails Foundation of Northern Utah’s Author Dinner on Sept. 30 at the Timbermine Steakhouse.
The Author Dinner is part of a year-long commemoration of Bernard DeVoto, who was born in Ogden 125 years ago on Jan. 11, 1897.
In the summer of 1925, DeVoto took his new wife, Avis, back to his hometown of Ogden to meet his father, Florian, for the first time, Schweber writes. During the visit, DeVoto rented a small cabin in the nearby mountain wilderness, where he was horrified to see the destruction caused by overgrazing and overlogging.
“Governmental neglect and corruption denuded the land,” Schweber writes.
One afternoon, a monsoon-fueled storm dumped 8 inches of rain an hour on the mountainside, forcing the DeVotos to flee to higher ground. The flash flood tore down their cabin and washed out a bridge.
“The flood lit a fire in Bernard DeVoto’s soul that would grow until it put heat to every word he wrote,” Schweber writes. “Bernard never got over his anger and horror. Just when he had found the love of his life, the fight of his life found him.”
In later life, DeVoto would become a novelist, celebrated historian and crusading columnist. “Across the Wide Missouri,” the second volume in his trilogy about the settling of the West, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948.
Helped by intelligence gathered by Ogden forester Chet Olsen, DeVoto used his column in Harper’s Magazine to expose and eventually stop a plot to sell off millions of acres of public land in national parks, monuments, forests and grasslands. DeVoto also was a principal voice in opposition to plans to dam the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument. Sadly, DeVoto did not live to see legislation that opposed the project become law. It prohibits dams and reservoirs in national parks. DeVoto died of a heart attack in 1955.
Schweber says DeVoto never forgot his roots along the Wasatch Front. “The 40 acres of the West most sacred to Bernard was his maternal grandparents’ fruit farm at the mouth of the Weber River, pouring from the national forest,” Schweber writes. As a boy, his chore on the farm was to rise at 3 a.m. to start water flowing to irrigate his grandfather’s peaches.
“Bernard revered the climatographical, gravitational, biotic, and political miracle by which snow above timberline on 12,000-foot peaks — spectral in predawn moonlight — became fuzzy Elberta peaches that with a swipe of small palm from branch to chipmunk cheeks delivered a taste sweeter than heaven,” Schweber writes. “It shaped how he would grow and love.”
If DeVoto were alive today, he certainly might mourn the changes that an interstate highway and urban development have brought to the mouth of Weber Canyon. But he surely would be pleased to know of the work spearheaded by the Trails Foundation to restore river habitat in this area.
Under the direction of TFNU’s Geoff Ellis and with the help of Trout Unlimited and the state Division of Wildlife Resources, the Weber River has been restored to its original flow to protect the spawning habitat of two native species, the Bonneville cutthroat trout and the bluehead sucker. Ellis reports that the new channel built in the fall of 2020 at Blackner’s Bend has been functioning brilliantly and on Earth Day weekend this year volunteers planted 22 trees and shrubs in the area.
The Utah Department of Transportation is currently constructing a pedestrian and bicycle tunnel under U.S. 89 at the mouth of the canyon that is expected to be completed this summer. The tunnel and additional trail recently built along the river, along with plans for a bridge across the Weber River, mean the long-held dream of completing the Weber River Parkway is close to being realized.
Schweber’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Anthony Bourdain’s “Explore Parts Unknown” and other publications. His conservation articles won awards from the Outdoor Writer’s Association of America in 2015 and 2018. In 2020, a ProPublica series he contributed to won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. He was born in Montana and now lives in New York City.
Tickets for the Author Dinner are on sale at tfnu.org. Individual tickets are $100 a seat. Tables of 10 are available for $1,000. All proceeds support the work of the Trails Foundation to build and maintain trails and protect open spaces in Northern Utah.
Ron Thornburg is chair of the TFNU Author Dinner committee and a past chair of the Trails Foundation.