John Wesley Powell’s “Arid Lands”

 Note to my readers: My blogs about cycling often include posts related to water-related issues in places where I ride and theological-ethical issues related to water use around the world. More and more I am anxious because of the challenges all citizens of the world face with respect to water.

Therefore, I am adding a new page to keithwatkinshistorian. Although my primary interests for the blog will continue to be American Religion and Open Road Bicycling, I plan to post more frequent essays related to Water. This new category is being inaugurated by a review essay prompted by  John Wesley Powell’s historic book Arid Lands, first published in 1878.

Arid Lands, by John Wesley Powell, edited by Wallace Stegner. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell

This book was first published in 1878 under the title Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, with a More Detailed Account of the Lands of Utah. Powell was 44 years of age, a veteran of the Civil War, and already known as an explorer of the arid regions that the report described.

His celebrated trip through the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River had taken place nine years earlier (1869), and since 1870 he had been in charge of the newly established Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region.

Powell’s decision to release the report when he did was influenced by the political situation at the time. Government officials and members of Congress were rushing toward significant settlements across the West despite the warnings by Powell and others. Funding for the agencies and studies in which Powell was engaged was under threat, and he was convinced that he had to act quickly in order to protect these funds and keep the research going forward. He believed that the already existing body of information supported the cautious approach to settlement that he was advocating.

He decided that it was possible to draw conclusions about possibilities and limits on the basis of what already was known, although further investigation would strengthen the factual basis for policies that he hoped would be put into place. In his introduction to the 2004 edition of Powell’s classic book, Wallace Stegner describes Powell’s endeavor in striking language.

“He risked his own future and the future of his bureau because in the sub-humid and arid lands he saw every successive land law, despite pious platitudes about the independent pioneer farmer, being turned to the advantage of monopolistic and often fraudulent practices, or encouraging a kind of agriculture that would not survive the first period of drought” (xvi).

Read more. . . .John Wesley Powell’s Arid Lands

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