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

John Ross:

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.