John Wesley Powell characterizes the land of the arid West as “the great Rocky Mountain Region of the United States, and it embraces something more than four-tenths of the whole country, excluding Alaska” (Merchant 329). Powell then divides the arid West into three distinct sub regions: the irrigable land, the timber lands, and the pasturage lands. The “irrigable tracts are part of the lowlands lying along the streams” (Merchant 330). The timber could be found on the “higher plateaus and mountains” (Merchant 330). Timber could only grow at a certain elevation due to the harsh conditions found at higher altitudes and the aridity found at lower altitudes. “The forests are chiefly of pine, spruce, and fir, but the pines are of principal value” (Merchant 331). Between the lowlands and highlands were a great number of, “valleys, mesas, hills, and low mountain lands” (Merchant 331). These areas had scattered growth of grasses which could be used for the raising of livestock.
In order to take advantage of the irrigable lowlands, Powell suggested that “cooperative labor of aggregated capital must be employed in taking out the larger streams” (Merchant 330). Making a large stream funnel into a system is a difficult job and therefore would require “a large outlay of labor and material” (Merchant 330). This meant that groups of farmers needed to cooperate in order to fulfill these projects. It was extremely unlikely that a farmer could set up an irrigation system by his or her self. Although not implemented on a large scale, Powell notes that, “in Utah territory cooperative labor, under ecclesiastical organization, has been very successful… at Greeley, in the State of Colorado, this system has been eminently successful” (Merchant 330).
The timber lands had a major question that needed answering, “can these forests be saved from fire?” (Merchant 331). Powell primarily blamed the Indians for setting fire to the timber lands in order to hunt game. Powell’s solution to the burning of the forests was the removal of the Indians. The lumbermen and woodmen could use the lumber obtained from the forests to supply the farmers of the lowlands with “building and fencing material and fuel” (Merchant 331). It was unlikely that farmers would be able to take on the task of logging due to the remoteness of the timber lands.
The last region of the arid West consisted of the pasturage lands. In order to make use of the grasses, land “must be of at least 2,560 acres, and in many districts they must be much larger” (Merchant 331). Since each farm would need a lot of land, it would mean that the homes would likely be largely scattered. However, in order to maximize everyone’s benefit, schools, churches and community projects should be taken on. In order to do this, “pasturage farms should conform to topographic features in such manner as to give the greatest possible number of water fronts” (Merchant 332). Also, since livestock would have to roam over large swaths of land it would not make sense to have any fences. This means that there would have to be communal agreements when it came to the regulation of land and herd size.
Powell’s plan if put into practice would probably not be ecologically sustainable. That being said, there are portions of his plan that would have been sustainable. In regard to the irrigable lands, I do believe that cooperative labor and investment in capital would have been an effective way to bring water to farms in the community. However, his idea to remove the Indians is quite disturbing and goes against the principles of ecological sustainability. Finally, his idea of having no fences for the livestock, seems to have many potential drawbacks. First of all, this means that there are no official property lines. There also would be the killing of livestock due to wild animals and the tendency for ranchers to keep as many livestock as possible in order to increase profits which would lead to overgrazing. Overall although Powell makes some good suggestions, I believe that his plans for development would not be ecologically sustainable.
Merchant, Carolyn. American Environmental History: an Introduction. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007.