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How the West Was Lost

In America’s first climate war, John Wesley Powell tried to prevent the overdevelopment that led to environmental devastation.

The Atlantic

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A ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma, is about to be encompassed by a gulf cloud in April 1935. Photo from the Associated Press.

One hundred thirty years ago, an immigrant froze to death during a blizzard that hit southwestern Kansas. A flyer tucked into the pocket of his light linen overcoat advertised Kansas as the “Italy of America”; it promised a verdant land full of opportunity. This unfortunate man, duped by powerful boosters who sold the undeveloped West as a serpentless Eden, was among the first victims of America’s earliest climate war.

Modern climate wars are new in that they revolve around global warming, but scientists have been battling against deniers since at least the 19th century. The tale of John Wesley Powell, an explorer and geologist who tried and failed to stop the policies that led to the immigrant’s death, is especially resonant today. Before his time, Powell understood that unbridled optimism and headlong land development would lead to environmental ruin and mass human suffering.


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.

In the 1840s and ’50s, most pioneers reckoned that the nation’s great opportunities lay beyond this parched region, at the end of the trails, in Oregon and California. But then the idea of the Great American Desert was turned on its head.

“These great Plains are not deserts,” wrote William Gilpin in a late-1857 edition of the National Intelligencer, “but the opposite, and are the cardinal basis of the future empire of commerce and industry now erecting itself upon the North American Continent.” As the soon-to-be first territorial governor of Colorado, the electric-tongued Gilpin knew that he would benefit from this novel outlook. He shamelessly rode the tide of Manifest Destiny—the notion that Americans were destined to push across the continent—to encourage westward migration.

His strategy worked. As soldiers came home from the Civil War and the nation returned to the business of business, all America, it seemed, scrambled aboard Gilpin’s bandwagon. “Go West, young man!” soon rang in everyone’s ears.

The railroads—America’s most visible instrument of its Manifest Destiny—adopted such visions enthusiastically. By far the largest private landowners in the West, they pushed out tides of promotional material that sold the West as a garden, not a desert. Utah was a promised land, proclaimed the Rio Grande and Western Railroad. “You can lay track through the Garden of Eden,” said Great Northern Railroad’s founder, James J. Hill, “but why bother if the only inhabitants are Adam and Eve?” The brochure in the pocket of the man who froze to death may well have come from a railroad’s well-oiled marketing machine.

Rolling in to support these cheerleaders came “science.” The “rain follows the plow” theorists—among them, many prominent scientists—became the chaplains of the western movement. By simply cultivating the arid soil, they postulated, the local climate would change permanently; the number of rainy days would rise and crops would burst out of the fertile ground.

Other even more outlandish ideas took root: The smoke from trains supposedly caused more rain, as did planting trees. The secretary of agriculture even traveled to Texas to evaluate the popular idea that dynamiting the atmosphere would induce rainfall. These were all flat-out fantasies, but, combined with a period of unusually good weather, they were highly enticing.

The populations of Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado doubled or tripled in the years following the Civil War.

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.

John Wesley Powell. Photo from the National Archives at College Park.

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.

Although this insight may seem self-evident today, it was revolutionary in Powell’s time; his maps were arguably as stunning to behold in the 19th century as NASA’s photographs of Earth from space were in the 20th.

One year later, he released his seminal Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States, which put forward the first scientific and detailed understanding of the climate system of the American West. The important book, noted the writer Wallace Stegner, was “loaded with dynamite.” Here was clear-cut information and data that could rationally direct federal land-management policy.

The map and the report amounted to a full-frontal assault on the federal land-grant system, still rooted in the 1862 Homestead Act’s stipulation that any American adult could receive 160 acres, contingent upon demonstrating an ability not just to live on the parcel but also to improve it. However well that system worked in Wisconsin or Illinois, Powell’s research suggested, the arid West could not support such relatively small homesteads.

Mild conditions had given recent immigrants to the West good crops and false expectations of a rosy future. But Powell’s experience studying western geology had taught him that the climate was variable and cyclical, bad decades following good ones. Pioneers flocking into the lands beyond the 100th meridian, Powell believed, would soon see their dreams wither into spindly crops and foreclosure. The lucky few who owned access to water were likely to establish dangerous monopolies that would roll over small farmers.

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.

Still, Powell would not let up.

In 1890, Powell unrolled another map, this time in front of the U.S. Senate. The western half of the U.S. looks as though a manic paintball player has shot it with a riot of colorful splotches, each one representing a watershed. He explained the importance of keeping water within watersheds, tying water legally to the land it flowed within, creating independent communities within watersheds, limiting federal involvement in local decisions about water usage, and creating mechanisms for monitoring meteorological and ecological developments.


Powell’s revolutionary watershed map, which also shows the 100th meridian line. Photo from the authors collection.

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. Between a quarter to one half of the once-hopeful settlers of Kansas and Nebraska were already gone, some of them nailing the now iconic In God we trusted, in Kansas we busted sign to their wagons. The regular mechanisms of American capitalism—private equity, the resilience of the individual, laissez-faire federal government—even when injected with healthy transfusions of Manifest Destiny, could not overcome the unforgiving hostilities of the West.

Powell made what would be his last stand against non-sustainable development in October 1893, in Los Angeles’s cavernous boomtown Grand Opera House. Although tedious sounding, the Irrigation Congress held therein promised great hope for a nation that needed some good news. A severe economic crisis was ravaging American markets. Silver prices, the hope of the West, had plummeted, while 560 state and private banks, and 155 national banks along with them, had closed. Droughts had devastated western agriculture like a biblical plague.

The magic bullet for the nation’s woes, many believed, lay in the words that emblazoned colorful bunting crowning the stage: “Irrigation: Science, not Chance.” The congress’s founder, the former Omaha newspaperman William Ellsworth Smythe, would later argue that aridity was actually a blessing, stimulating the civilizing power of irrigation. His new movement was “not merely a matter of ditches and acres, but a philosophy, a religion, and a programme of practical statesmanship rolled in to one.”

At the congress, one speaker after another extolled how new technologies would facilitate the irrigation of 572 million acres of dry public land west of the 97th meridian. Wide new expanses of farmland would bring in waves of small farmers and create untold prosperity. The new irrigation technologies—internal-combustion engines to pull up groundwater, new water-tank designs, ditchers, duplex pumps, and special drainage tile—represented a clear path toward resuscitating the American dream.

Some 700 attendees were in a festive mood when they turned expectantly to hear Powell, the dean of the American West. The aging scientist was supposed to deliver a technical paper. Instead, he pushed aside his prepared address. He spoke extemporaneously and from the heart, drawing on his experience mapping the American West to describe the region’s inescapable environmental realities.

“When all the rivers are used, when all the creeks in the ravines, when all the brooks, when all the springs are used, when all the reservoirs along the streams are used, when all the canyon waters are taken up, when all the artesian waters are taken up, when all the wells are sunk or dug that can be dug in this arid region,” he warned, “there is still not sufficient water to irrigate all the land.”

The congress members rustled in their chairs, thoroughly confused.

“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.

Smythe denounced Powell’s sensational speech in The Irrigation Age, ending in bold, accusatory capitals: “ARID AMERICA IS FIGHTING FOR ITS FUTURE. WHOEVER STANDS IN ITS WAY WILL BE CRUSHED.” Soon thereafter, Powell’s detractors hounded him from the directorship of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Thus the deniers won the first climate war. Their victory, however, would yield bitter fruit: Human-induced environmental catastrophe lay not far in the future.

A generation after Powell’s death in 1902, in the spring of 1934, the District of Columbia awoke to find its skies choked with a 10,000-foot cloud of dust that darkened the sun and begrimed federal office buildings. Shockingly, the dust was the airborne topsoil of more than a million acres in Nebraska and Kansas, a thousand miles eastward. Indiscriminate plowing, excessive grazing, and drought had killed off so much plant cover that the wind had simply stolen the region’s soil. Too many settlers had pushed the land beyond its capacity, just as Powell had predicted. The great Dust Bowl would displace some 2.5 million Americans and set off one of the greatest migrations in U.S. history.


In 2018, a team of Columbia University meteorologists looked back to assess whether Powell’s 100th-meridian line has held up as a marker. It has. Patterns of American settlement have been deeply affected by aridity: In the West, population density remains much lower than in the East, farms are fewer and bigger, and water-loving corn gives way to wheat. The Columbia team also suggested that Powell’s line may have been creeping eastward since 1980, pushed along by global warming.

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.

Today, America’s fastest-growing urban areas lie in the West, yet little consideration has been given as to where they will procure the water for their growing needs. Miners now drill 3,000 feet to reach water in the vanishing Ogallala Aquifer, while cities rely on expensive canal systems that divert water for hundreds of miles, often over mountains. The West’s most significant river—the Colorado—is a shadow of what it was when Powell boated down it, so heavily used that it no longer flows to the sea but dries up as it crosses into Mexico. Human-induced climate change has raised the ante. As development encroaches on the wilderness, more homes become vulnerable to longer and more intense wildfire seasons.   

Hardship does drive invention, as Smythe and others insisted; we see that in no-till farming, cover crops, and grass belts, which have helped farmers more sustainably adjust to dry-farming conditions. Yet these technological innovations can act as window dressing that prevents us from tackling more fundamental problems. And human-caused climate change is by no means as easily rectified as the regional conditions that left the West vulnerable to the Dust Bowl. The playing field, moreover, is no longer confined to the arid American West, but must be seen as encompassing the planet’s atmosphere, its oceans, and its great polar icecaps.

Powell could not sway the hearts and minds of the elites watching the country grow, even with compelling scientific evidence, so strong was America’s belief in its own bright future. Climate scientists now fight a similar battle, their discipline challenged by entrenched economic interests, misinformation, and by constituencies that think acknowledging climate change will somehow diminish American progress. No ardent environmentalist, Powell believed that the Earth and its resources were here for humans to exploit. He also thought that, to reach our full potential, we would have to listen to what the land and climate told us, and to adjust our activities accordingly.

The deniers beat Powell. Will they beat his successors?

John F. Ross is the author of The Promise of the Grand Canyon: John Wesley Powell’s Perilous Journey and His Vision for the American West.

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This post originally appeared on The Atlantic and was published September 10, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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