John Wesley Powell and the American Midwest

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Aristotleded24
John Wesley Powell and the American Midwest

So I stumbled upon this little history about the development of the American midwest. Here is what I found interesting:

Quote:
For the first half of their nation’s history, Americans had virtually ignored the West, believing it to be a vast wasteland. Dispatched there by President James Monroe in 1819, Stephen H. Long described the Great Plains from Nebraska to Oklahoma as “wholly unfit for cultivation and of course uninhabitable by a people depending on agriculture.” The map accompanying his three-volume report labeled the area as a “Great Desert,” terminology that soon morphed into the “Great American Desert,” a colorful appellation that would stick for a generation.

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In April 1877, when John Wesley Powell stood in front of the National Academy of Sciences’ annual meeting in Washington, D.C., everyone in the room knew the details of his daring passage on a tiny rowboat down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon eight years before. No mere tough guy, Powell was a formidable surveyor who would soon head the U.S. Geological Survey. He had climbed, walked, and boated through more of the American West than any white man, and had something to say about William Gilpin’s astounding claims.

He unrolled a document carefully with his left hand—he’d lost his right arm during the Civil War—to reveal a map of the continental United States. On it, he had drawn a vertical line, technically an isohyet, beginning in central Texas and rising up through Kansas, east of Nebraska, and through Minnesota and the Dakotas, approximating the 100th meridian. This startlingly simple line forced its viewers to visualize the American nation not in terms of political boundaries, but by its climate: It delineated the arid West from the forested East, land that received 20 or more inches of rain from that which received less. He chose 20 inches as his dividing point because that was the minimum necessary to conduct conventional agriculture without irrigation. The map illustrated forcefully how much of the American West, with some notable exceptions in the Pacific Northwest, was unfarmable.

Powell’s warnings were anathema to politicians and business interests. No one wanted to hear from a man who thought “rain follows the plow” was hogwash—who seemed to look back to the days of the Great American Desert and would impede America’s natural progress. The land agent for the Northern Pacific Railroad, itself the beneficiary of nearly 4 million acres in government grants (an area bigger than Connecticut), hammered back at Powell’s “grave errors.” Opponents claimed that Powell was blind to nationally crucial economic realities. Several powerful western senators took Powell’s position as a personal affront; they feared that, if his warnings gained currency, they would lose out on the tax revenue generated by settlers.

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Crucially, Powell argued that the West’s climate had to affect the customs, occupations, and politics of its inhabitants—its whole culture, in other words. He tied human endeavor to weather and geography while calling for coordinated development of land, water, forest, and mining. His genius lay in recognizing that every arid civilization stands or falls not by the absolute amount of water available, but rather by its capacity to develop economic, technical, and political mechanisms that can dispense the water equitably, and then adjust as needs change.

Again, the political power structure ignored Powell, even though by 1890 the mild Plains weather had turned into drought.

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“I tell you, gentlemen, you are piling up a heritage of conflict and litigation over water rights, for there is not sufficient water to supply these lands.” Murmurs now turned to shouts, then the boos came. But Powell drove on. A society that could not contemplate reasonable limits would mire in the swamps of unsustainability—shortage, endless litigation, infrastructure costs, fallout from vicious water politics—each one a threat to the democracy.

Powell’s address resonated with moral courage but amounted at last to political suicide: He had sinned against the prime American idol, optimism.

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Powell made some mistakes, but his most basic assumptions proved eerily accurate. He estimated that only 40 million arid acres could be recovered, which is very close to the total under cultivation today, including those under deep-well irrigation on the Great Plains. And Powell, though wrong about the overall quantities of fossil water contained in aquifers, at least fully grasped that it had taken millions of years to accumulate, and that using it indiscriminately is akin to borrowing capital that cannot be repaid. So much of what he preached— most broadly, the necessity of ecological stewardship — remains prophetically to the point.