Blame Major Powell

Four square miles may be considered as the minimum amount necessary for a pasturage farm, and a still greater amount is necesary for the larger part of the lands; that is, pasturage farms, to be of any practicable value, must be of at least 2560 acres, and in many districts they must be much larger.

-John Wesley Powell,  Report on the lands of the arid region of the United States with a more detailed account of the land of Utah with maps (USGS, 1879)

Cliven Bundy is a bad American, that much has been made clear by the events of the past month.  Mr. Bundy, whose family has leased BLM land in southeast Nevada since the 1940s, objected the imposition of grazing fees in the early 1990s.  He chose not to pay them.  He attempted to pay them to the state.  He fought the fees in court.  He lost, with all evidence suggesting that said arguments were not especially serious.  More recently, a court ordered the BLM to execute an order which only came about thanks to legal action; round up Bundy’s cattle.  The BLM kept dragging their feet, allowing the publicity wise Bundy family to make a nuisance of themselves and rally support, leading to the lamentable situation we have today.

Bundy has no legal standing, and saying otherwise is untenable.  His objection is ideological, and that fact has been easily, intuitively grasped by most everyone.  That has unfortunately led to a muddying of the waters, with mostly irrelevant arguments concerning things like the 1st ammendment rights of protestors and Mr. Bundy’s anachronistic views of race featuring prominently.

What is relevant, and what the Bundy family is in the end trying to fight against, is the belated imposition of Major Powell’s vision for settlement of the western United States.  His 1879 report, which is fascinating reading if you’re into that sort of thing, lays out a very specific and thoroughly prescient view of what manner of settlement will be sustainable west of the 100th meridian.  Here, just as with geology, Powell displayed one of the finest minds of the century, grasping and simply stating sweeping guidelines which would stand the test of time.  Powell was, or chose to be, politically inept, and presented his report with all the tact of a dog shitting in the living room.  It was not debated on its merits, and western legislators who saw how economically restrictive Powell’s ideas would be buried the report and forced Powell out of the USGS. 

It took over half a century for Powell’s ideas to finally enter into law, most obviously in the form of the Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.  Powell himself was thoroughly of his time, and was an unabashed utilitarian anthropocentrist.  It seemingly never occured to him to think otherwise; the earth was obviously created for human use.  In their more conservative iterations, the CWA and ESA swing the pendulum of said use back towards a more reasonable and sustainable interpretation.  And here we arrive at Cliven Bundy’s front door.

Much of the intermountain west is a stupid place to make a living as a farmer or rancher.  Aside from limited areas which can be readily irrigated (i.e. by a nearby and perrenial stream or river), agriculture is only possible via convoluted schemes, which will eventually fail.  California is currently paying this particular piper is rather spectacular fashion, a historical inevitability which should not be surprising.  Ranchers have been paying the debts of their forefathers in a slower fashion, with slow elk and meadow maggots being forced off the more marginal ranges, either by lawsuits exposing their rape of particularly sensitive habitats, or the imposition of more reasonable grazing fees.

In the case of Bundy, it seems that the range was so poor that any fee at all would have made his operation economically unsustainable, which given the many objectionable impacts of cattle on high desert (the tortoise being only the most ready example), can lead to only one conclusion: cattle ranching has no place in southeast Nevada.  Bundy, and many like him, are in the process of  or will soon begin to be forced out of their lifelong vocation and avocation by federal machinations over which they have no control.  This is taking place for the long-term good of the nation, which does little to remit the unavoidable personal tragedy.  I do not blame Bundy and his family for being mad as hell.  I do blame them for not being adult enough to look at the big picture, and doing what all their neighbors did a decade or more ago.  Sell out, cut their losses, and move on.  With beef prices very high right now, this option still exists.

Perhaps if Powell had been more tactful 130 years ago more of his ideas would have passed into law sooner, and the USA wouldn’t be facing such a large scale, deeply entrenched cultural shift.  It will continue, and it will continue to be ugly.

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4 thoughts on “Blame Major Powell

  1. Interesting connection. Though, with the West, we’re always playing Six Degrees of Separation from John Wesley Powell. Have you read Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian? His thesis is largely that Powell was a highly skilled politician working within the limits (largely superstitious, anti-scientific) of popular beliefs of the time. He argues that the fact that Powell accomplished as much as he did is rather remarkable.

    While I’m no Powell scholar—Stegner’s biography is the only substantive work I’ve read on him—his interpretation of the broader trends of U.S. history at the end of the 19th century largely agree with my own study of the period.

    • It has been a long time since I read it, I ought to bump it to the top of the reread list, as I’m sure I’d understand it much better today.

      I imagine Stegner was right in that Powell couldn’t have gotten more traction, with this report in particular. Nonetheless, my impression was always that Powell thought his science would stand on it’s own legs. Both this report and his geological works don’t bother with exhaustive proofs and arguments in the way one would expect academic work to operate.

  2. Although I appreciate the catchy title I think it’s safe to say that Powell’s prescience was uncanny and a far more sustainable footing for the development of the West could have been learned had the Bureau of Reclamation (and subsequently the Army Corp) not come along and made the subsidies that allowed Bundy (and more-specifically his forefathers) the defacto standard of the Western grazing business.

  3. A well written account of the politics, history and culture of water in the American west is “Cadillac Desert”. It is something I re-read every few years. In fact, I started -re-reading it this past week. An update version needs to be made of the book, but the author passed away in 2000 IIRC.

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