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Know the West

Powell was a fire bug

  Dear HCN,

John Wesley Powell was undoubtedly a giant in the exploration of, and proposals for, Western lands. The essay by William deBuys tells us that if we'd have listened to Powell, we might not have clear-cut forests and disenfranchised local communities (HCN, 4/12/99).

In fact, we would have no national forests, and what forests remained would probably be limited to use by local watershed commonwealths. And I do not agree that we have disenfranchised local communities. Here in Sedona, there is tremendous cooperation these days between the Forest Service and local communities.

If Bernard Fernow, then chief of the Forestry Division of the Agriculture Department, is to be believed, Powell seemed to be anti-forest. Fernow wrote about a meeting on Nov. 14, 1889, of the American Forestry Association leaders with Secretary of Interior Noble regarding the development of policies for proposed forest reservations. Major Powell asked to be included and was permitted to do so.

According to Fernow, "Major Powell launched into a long dissertation to show that the claim of the favorable influence of forest cover on water flow or climate was untenable, that the best thing to do with the Rocky Mountain forests was to burn them down, and he related with great gusto how he himself had started a fire that swept over a thousand square miles."

I expect that Powell had his own version of that meeting. It appears that he may have resented the idea that people proposing national forest reserves were butting in on his own grand plans for the arid West. Then, maybe, he was simply Saint Contrary.

Wayne D. Iverson

Sedona, Arizona