Getting To Know The National Domain

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On March 3,1879, two years into the administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Forty-fifth Congress reluctantly created two new federal bureaus. One, the United States Geological Survey, consolidated under the Department of the Interior three existing Western surveys led by John Wesley Powell, F. V. Hayden, and Lieutenant George Wheeler. (A fourth, Clarence King’s survey of the Fortieth Parallel, had finished its field work and was preparing to close up shop.) The other, the Bureau of Ethnology, later called the Bureau of American Ethnology, and now folded into the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology, concentrated under the wing of the Smithsonian Institution the previously random and uncorrelated study of America’s native tribes.

The enabling legislation for both bureaus was devious. Both, for good reasons, were authorized by riders attached to the Sundry Civil Appropriations Bill in the last days of the session. The War Department and the Department of the Interior were competing for control of the Western surveys. The surveys themselves were competitive and jealous. Hayden in particular was ambitious to be director of a combined survey, and though a good many backers of consolidation were against him, he had a strong Senate lobby. There were, moreover, some influential people who honestly believed that government involvement in science was wrong, perhaps unconstitutional. Any of those forces might have made trouble for a forthright bill.

But a more compelling reason for moving cautiously was that consolidation of the surveys was tied to a wholesale reform of the land laws in the West. Any bill coming along the belt line through the Public Lands Committee would have been strangled there by Western congressmen. But a rider to an appropriations bill went to the Appropriations Committee, which was friendly.

Behind the reform movement were Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz and a number of congressmen, of whom Representative Abram Hewitt of New York was most effective. Behind it were also a majority of scientists, including Othniel C. Marsh, president of the National Academy of Sciences. But behind them all was a bushy-bearded little man with one arm, an encyclopedic knowledge of the West, eight years of experience in the hog trough of Grant’s Washington, a mind that was at once visionary and orderly, and an ideal of public service that few men have ever brought to Washington and even fewer have retained there. His name was John Wesley Powell.

During the shoestring expeditions into the canyons of the Colorado River that had made him a national hero in 1869, and in nine seasons as director of the Geographical and Geological Survey of the Plateau Province, Major Powell had learned some things about the West that no Western booster could bring himself to admit, and that some would not admit until the Dust Bowl years of the 1930’s. One was that, as historian Walter Webb later put it, the West is a semidesert with a desert heart, too dry for unaided agriculture and with only enough water to irrigate perhaps 20 per cent of the land. Much of what passed for information about the West was either mythology or promotion. The Homestead Act and other land laws, which worked well enough east of the Ninety-eighth Meridian, did not work west of it. Neither the traditional 160-acre homestead nor the rectangular surveys that defined it worked, and because they didn’t, thousands of settlers were inviting personal tragedy in Kansas and the Dakotas, and the unscrupulous all over the West were on the way to monopolizing land, either by fraudulent entries or by getting control of the limited water. And finally, except on minor streams in high and less arable country, the damming and management of rivers was more than the unaided settler could manage.

In his youth Powell had been a frontier farmer; in his maturity he was a kind of Populist. The inauguration of Hayes on March 4,1877, opened the door to his reformist impulses. In April, 1878, he put into the hands of Carl Schurz his half-finished Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States , a remarkable book whose first chapter spoke more truth about the land, water, climate, and institutional necessities of the West than had been expressed anywhere up to that time, and whose second chapter proposed specific alterations in the patterns of settlement, with draft legislation.

Powell urged that the cadastral surveys be taken out of the hands of the corrupt General Land Office and turned over to the Coast and Geodetic Survey; that contract surveying be abolished; that Western lands be classified as irrigable and nonirrigable; and that homesteads be tailored to the availability of water. Eighty acres of irrigated land was all that one family could work, but for the grazing of livestock a family farm in the West should consist of at least 2,560 acres, four full sections. Every homestead of either kind should have a water source, and the water right should be tied to the land. And since reservoirs and ditches were more than the individual farmer could afford, machinery should be created for the voluntary formation of cooperative irrigation and grazing districts that could adapt their surveys to the lay of the land, and combine to impound and distribute water.