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Author Discusses How John Wesley Powell Challenged Western Settlement

USGS/Grand Canyon National Park Museum Collection

150 years ago this week John Wesley Powell began his epic journey down the Green and Colorado Rivers. He became a legendary adventurer as the first white man to raft the Grand Canyon. But the experience inspired him to make a radical effort to change the way America settled the West. Powell warned Congress the land was too dry to support farmers, and said states should be organized by watersheds instead of political lines. Author John Ross tells that story in his book The Promise of the Grand Canyon. Ross spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny about the lessons we can learn from Powell today.

Melissa Sevigny: Powell intended for his 1869 river trip to be a scientific expedition. Did it turn out that way?

John Ross: Boy, when I talk to people about this they get a little shocked. Powell got through the other end with 6 of the original 10 members of the expedition, and he considered a failure. Because they had busted up their barometers, all their maps were wet… they were battered in mind and body, their boats were a mess. They were fighting for their lives. So all ideas that this was a scientific expedition were gone.

So in the book after you describe the Grand Canyon expeditions you write: “the journey that counted had only just begun.” What do you mean by that?  

So while the rest of the guys were seeing pretty colors and beautiful scenery and strangely contorted rocks, Powell was seeing Earth’s history in the making. In the canyon that experience was an epiphany of sorts in a visceral way. It began to evolve into an idea about humans should intersect and interact with the land, and with its resources, with water. Traditionally, it was a time when the American West was largely unknown. Yes, people knew it was kind of dry, but we were still marching west with the idea this would be small farms….He stepped in and said, that 160-acres, that idea is not going to work in the west. He was not an environmentalist in John Muir framework, but in a very important way he was laying out the groundwork to think about how we intersect with our land sustainably. 

So at one point Powell went to Congress with these ideas and said we need to settle the west differently. What do you think would be different today if Congress had listened to him?  

If Congress had listened to what Powell said, if we had kept water more in watersheds and developed appropriately, I think we would be a saner, saner world. It would have put some restrictions on some of the Southwestern cities that are developing so fast now….who have very little understanding of where their water will come from in the future…. Powell didn’t have all of the answers, but he raised such critical questions.

I wanted to ask you about why you say Powell today would be at the forefront of climate change.

Of course as a historian I would remiss if I didn’t say it would be entirely irresponsible to say what a dead person brought back to life would do today, but with that caveat… But I’m very clear that if he was here today, he would be leading the charge to talk about global climate change. He was really the first to say we need to look at the climate, the land, the geology, to understand what we can pull from the earth and how we use it. America wasn’t ready yet to listen to it. But we are more and more today. 

John Ross, thank you for speaking with me today.

My pleasure, Melissa, thank you.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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