Saint Contrary: John Wesley Powell

  • John Wesley Powell and Ute woman in Uinta Valley

    courtesy Smithsonian Institution
  • John Wesley Powell


If the American West were to adopt a secular, flawed, feet-of-clay patron saint, John Wesley Powell, whose March 24th birthday just passed, would be the man.

Powell, who was born in 1834 and died in 1902, epitomized grit and courage, qualities the West likes to honor. He lost an arm at Shiloh commanding a battery at the heart of the hottest fighting in the Civil War. Then, his stump barely healed, he fought on through Vicksburg and Atlanta. Unslowed, he was the first to descend a thousand whitewater miles of the Colorado River, and having done that and barely survived, he promptly did it a second time.

Powell was a scientist, geologist, geographer and ethnographer. He prowled the Four Corners backcountry of the so-called Wild West in its wildest post-Civil War days, and he did not carry a gun. He believed the best way to get along with the region's native people was to show you meant no harm - and to mean none.

He founded the Bureau of American Ethnology and sponsored hundreds of research investigations of enduring value on the premise that native cultures demanded study and understanding. Having led one of the four great surveys of the American West, he also posed - and partly answered - fundamental questions about how the Colorado Plateau was carved to its present form.

But the West could push all that aside and still have reason to honor J. W. Powell. Powell may have been a bureaucrat, but he did not believe in the bureaucratization of the West. He believed the federal government's role was to inventory and organize the West, then to release its lands and resources to the control of watershed commonwealths, which were to be locally and democratically governed.

Although Powell's plan for Western settlement suffered total defeat, it is not hard to understand what he had in mind. His commonwealths were much like irrigation districts: Their first task was to regulate and apportion water for agricultural and domestic use. At a local, or at most regional, level, they would construct the dams, canals and drains necessary for development of small-scale, family-run farms wherever land was susceptible of irrigation and water was available.

Unlike today's irrigation districts, however, Powell's commonwealths would also have been responsible for management of their watershed's uplands. Powell believed that self-interest was the key to good stewardship: No sanely governed commonwealth would abuse its uplands lest the quality and quantity of its water decline. One reason he opposed the creation of a national forestry service (and aroused the ire of many conservationists of his day) was that he feared the erosion of a local sense of responsibility. Another was his conviction that no federal agency could long remain immune from political (read industrial) influence. Given the West's history of clear-cut forests and disenfranchised local communities, you can't say Powell was wrong.

Powell's commonwealths would have managed the forests for both timber and water. In much the same way, they would have regulated grazing, imposing limits on the unbridled exploitation of rangelands a good half-century or so before the too-late and too-weak Taylor Grazing Act came into play.

The public lands today are largely governed by administrative pyramids whose tops are lost in the cloudy altitudes of Washington. Much of what passes for democracy in the region is simply the struggle of competing coalitions to control the tops of the pyramids. Powell's plan would have decapitated the pyramids, rendering them flatter and simpler, and forcing decisions to be made in a local arena of face-to-face community contact.

The results would have been far from perfect, but they would have been diverse. Different commonwealths would have taken different approaches to solving their problems. The rate of trial-and-error experimentation would have been high, and the rate of learning, one hopes, also high. One wonders how things might have been.

But Powell was soundly defeated. Prospective homesteaders did not want to surrender the public domain to the control of commonwealths; timber interests did not want farmers in charge of the forests; and entrepreneurs did not care to answer to anybody. In the end, most folks agreed that the wide-open, free-for-all rush to riches that characterized Western settlement was pretty much OK. And that is what we now have all around us - the good and the bad.

Powell's importance is not that he was right - his plan would have righted some wrongs but created a hothouse for growing others. It was that he saw the West on its terms, as a place that needed to grow its institutions and wrestle with its problems in its own homegrown way.

Plenty of commentators and historians have tried to cut Powell down to size. They say he was fatally stubborn, or they say he was a self-aggrandizing bureaucrat; they point out his inconsistencies. They might as well try to tweezer down a redwood. The true Powell remains. A hundred years ago, Powell made nearly everyone uneasy. His thinking was too bold, too unconventional. He challenged people. Same thing today. He still doesn't fit, still makes people uneasy.

Good for him. Good for us if we listen to him.

William deBuys is the author of several books on Western lands. He is currently compiling an anthology of John Wesley Powell's major writings.

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