John Wesley Powell was perhaps the most influential explorer and nature writer of his time. During the 1860s and 1870s, the one-armed civil war veteran led dangerous expeditions through uncharted areas of the Western United States to explore and map them. The expertise he gained in his travels allowed him, in March 1881, to assume the directorship of the U.S. Geological survey when the first director Clarence King resigned. He served for 13 years, until he retired in 1894. Powell also served as director of the Smithsonian's Bureau of Ethnology from 1880 until his death in 1902.
John Wesley Powell was born in 1834 to a poor farm family. As a boy he was interested in botany and zoology, although his minister father did not encourage the endeavors. He persisted despite this, and eventually became a science professor at two American universities. His teaching career was interrupted by his service in the Civil War, in which he attained the rank of major. He lost his arm during the Battle of Shiloh, but he did not let the disability prevent him from undertaking the many strenous exploring trips for which he eventually became famous.
Powell's best known exploration was of the Colorado River. The Grand Canyon had been discovered by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, in 1540, but it had never been charted and many of Powell's contemporaries believed that it must contain unpassable falls. Powell reasoned that the Colorado River would have worn down most of the falls, and that the river coudl be navigable. In 1869 he led a ten man expedition down the river. Only half his team survived. In 1969 he finished the exploration, making an enormous contribution to modern geological science with his careful observation of the canyon's formations.
The U.S. government published Powell's findings in 1878, in the Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States. He also published a large number of independent articles in mainstream magazines, although his ideas did not gain widespread support among an apathetic public and an unreceptive Congress. Powell's writing on land management combines detailed descriptions of the climate and geography of the Western states with clear and original ideas for their organization and governance. His writing is interesting not only for its revolutionary suggestions regarding land and resource administration, but for its uncanny anticipation of the power struggle which has emerged between western farmers and ranchers and the federal government.
Powell published a list of priorities for the organization of the arid west, as follows:
Powell did not regard the magnitude of the looming tasks as an indication that they would need government control for their execution. To the contrary:
"...In the name of the men who labor I demand that the laborers shall employ themselves; that the enterprise shall be controlled by the men who have the genius to organize, and who homes are in the lands developed, and that the money shall be furnished by the people, and I say to the Government: Hands off! Furnish the people with institutions of justice, and let them do the work for themselves. The solution to be propounded, then, is one of institutions to be organized for the establishment of justice, not of appropriations to be made and offices created by the Government."
Powell suggested that the irrigable arid lands be divided into semi-autonomous hydrographic districts, structured around local water sources. Communities sharing a common water source were to be entrusted with the responsibility of its use:
"In a group of mountains a river has its source. A dozen or a score of creeks unite to form the trunk. The creeks higher up divide into brooks. All these streams combined form the drainage system of a hydrological basin... Such a district of country is a commonwealth by itself... Every man is interested in the conservation and management of the water supply, for all the waters are needed within the district. The men who control the farming below must also control the upper regions where the waters are gathered from the heavens and stored in the reservoirs... Not a spring of a creek can be touched without affecting the interests of every man who cultivates the soil in the region. All the waters are common property until they reach the main canal, where they are to be distributed among the people. How these waters are to be caught and the common source of the wealth utilized by the individual settlers interested therein is a problem for the men of the district to solve, and for them alone."
Forests, too, were to be controlled by local users. Powell believed that the long-term interests of the settlers would guide their management practices:
"If they permit the forests to be destroyed, the source of their water supply is injured and the timber values are wiped out. If the forests are to be guarded, the people directly interested should perform the task. An army of aliens set out to watch the forests would need another army of aliens to watch them, and a forestry organization under the hands of the General Government would become a hot-bed of corruption; for it would be impossible to fix responsibility and difficult to secure integrity of administration, because ill-defined values in great quantities are involved.
Powell was no anarchist: he recognized that the Federal and State governments had roles to play in the management of Western lands. However, most of the responsibilities were reserved, in his scheme, to locally chosen district governments. These local governments would establish courts for the adjudication of questions of resource use. They would establish and enforce protection measures for common and private property. They could also tax themselves as they wished, or borrow money using district resources as collateral. Powell's trust in people's ability to manage local natural resources extended to capital management: "These district communities... will speedily understand how to attract capital by learning that honesty is the best policy."
The limited role of State governments was described this way:
"Each state should provide courts for the adjudication of litigation between people of different districts, and courts of appeal from the irrigation district courts. It should also establish a general inspection system, and provide that the irrigation reservoirs shall not be constructed in such a manner as to menace the people below and place them in peril from floods. And finally, it should provide general statues regulating water rights."
The Federal government would be limited to a supportive administrative role. It would allocate land to the watershed districts; classify its use, and retain ownership only of non-irrigable lands. It would also be in charge of interstate allocations and litigation.
Powell was more keenly aware than anyone of just how fragile was the ecosystem of the Western United States. He was a naturalist at heart, and he advocated policies of settlement specially designed to succeed without creating wasteland. But his caution did not entail distrust of the people: he believed that those whose livelihoods and properties were at stake would always be better equipped to manage their land than any bureautcrats.
Institutions of the Arid Lands, by JWP. Originally published in Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine for May, 1890, vol. 40, pp. 111-116. Reprinted in and quoted from Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell, George Crossette, ed. David R Godine publisher, Boston, 1970.
Powell and His Colorado Centennial, (introduction.) In Selected Prose of John Wesley Powell. George Crossette, ed.