Arid Lands and the Desert Southwest

Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell (Part Two of a Review Essay)

The book we know by the title Arid Lands was initially offered as an extended report to the United States Congress by a Washington scientist-bureaucrat, to use the term suggested by John Vernon in his foreword to the 2004 edition published by the University of Nebraska Press. In addition to the historical and descriptive chapters that Powell wrote, the report included chapters written by Willis Drummond Jr., C. E. Dutton, A. H. Thompson, and G. K. Gilbert, and the drafts of two bills proposed to Congress.

Powell, however, was both the major contributor and the guiding spirit for the entire document. The Arid Lands report is a comprehensive document that is 195 pages long in the current edition. Six features indicate the character of the book.

First, Arid Lands is grounded in experiential understanding of the vast region that it describes. Powell had been there for extended periods of time and in ways that forced him to reckon with the grandeur and challenge of the desert Southwest.

Bicyclists, of course, experience the sun, heat, and dryness in various seasons of the year and have some sense of the constancy of risk when dealing with the desert in a relatively unprotected way. Powell’s experience, however, was prior to the development of the systems of civilization that have been developed during the past century and a half. His boat trips through the Grand Canyon and along other desert rivers exposed him to peril far beyond any that cyclists today are likely to encounter. The book conveys this sense of realism.

Second, this experiential understanding is explained and interpreted by means of a large body of technical data about temperatures, rainfall, water levels in rivers and lakes, and other aspects of the geographical and climatological facts of the land. Although the body of information was not yet complete, which was one of the reasons Powell was asking for Congress’ continuing support, the data already collected were comprehensive and well organized so that reliable conclusions could be drawn about the entire sub-humid and arid region of the United States.

Third, Powell was willing to consider varied theories under discussion and to evaluate them on the basis of the data in hand and by careful evaluation of strengths and weaknesses. One example is the extended discussion of the rising level of the Great Salt Lake in one of the chapters by G. K. Gilbert. Before reaching his own conclusion, Powell had considered two other explanations, the volcanic theory and the climatic theory. Powell’s conclusion was that “the phenomena are to be ascribed to the modification of the surface of the earth by the agency of man” (84).

Fourth, Powell was committed to central principles of the American democratic system, but he was ready to redesign the economic and organizational systems so that people could live in freedom and with a way of life that was suitable to where they lived and the limits placed by climate and other natural factors.

Many of the systems that encouraged Jefferson’s yeoman farmers were designed to meet the reality of life in temperate, wet climates. They could not be transferred straight across to hot, dry climates. This Powell understood. He proposed his own ideas about social organization and tried to bring about legislation that would have established new and workable systems for the kind of world he was describing.

Fifth, some of Powell’s ideas are questionable. His attitudes toward Native Americans are demeaning and fail to acknowledge their rightful claims to the land. Although he recognized the importance of fire in regard to the patterns of grass and forests, his understanding of this aspect of the drought-flood-fire trilogy was deficient. Powell believed that cooperative efforts were necessary in order to develop the irrigation systems that the arid lands would require, but he mistakenly thought that they could be developed by local forces, such as under the Mormons in Utah. He failed to understand how important federal agencies would be.

Sixth, Powell can properly called a conservationist. He was an exemplar of one type: the person who is committed to the realistic and sustainable utilization of the geographical and climatic resources of a region. Here he stands as an interesting contrast with a second type of conservationist, with his contemporary John Muir as exemplar.

Muir’s interest was the preservation of natural lands in their existing condition, which is one of the reasons that the nation’s system of national parks can be understood as a testimony to his conservationist ideas.

The similarities and contrasts of these towering figures of the nineteenth century have been succinctly stated by Donald Worster in a lecture published in 2003 (“Encountering Mormon Country: John Wesley Powell, John Muir, and the Nature of Utah”; more on this essay another time). For now, it is enough to recommend Arid Lands by John Wesley Powell. The book deserves continued reading and discussion.

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