Powell Memorial, Arizona

It has been a while since my last post, as I have been traveling the last couple of weeks. Usually at this time of year I would drag myself away from the daily routine of classes and grading to attend the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG). This meeting is the major American conference of professional and academic geographers, but draws attendees from all over the world, who come to whatever large city is hosting to present their research, talk to their colleagues and peers, and network. I don’t generally like networking, nor am I very good at it, but the conference is a good way to meet up with friends and colleagues I normally don’t see very often, and also I usually try to go to a baseball game. I have attended long enough that I am on the second go with many of the host cities, since there are only so many places with the hotel space and number of meeting rooms and event space that can host an event for 8000 or more participants over several days. This year the AAG was in Boston, but for the first time since 2000, I did not attend. This was primarily for personal reasons, as I am focusing my efforts this year on the Canadian Association of Geographers (CAG) meeting in Toronto later this spring. There was a vigorous discussion among international members of the AAG about attending this year as a matter of political principle and in response to the executive orders US President Donald Trump signed earlier this year that restricted entry to the United States based on country of origin, though, as the federal judges who blocked the enforcement of these orders have noted, this looked and acted much like a religious test for entry. My reasons for forgoing the AAG this year were not political, though I am sympathetic to those who chose this route, and the association made efforts to allow those from affected countries who had registered to attend the chance to present and attend via Skype or through proxies.

In any case, this post is not about these executive orders or immigration or the conference as a kind of space (though that is a good idea for a later post). I was in Arizona instead of at the AAG, first and foremost to attend the Final Four, the US men’s college basketball championship (even though my own favorite team was eliminated in the round just prior in dramatic fashion), held in the cavernous University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale, and then to venture up to the Grand Canyon and points in between. The specific place I want to examine in this post is the John Wesley Powell Memorial, located at Powell Point on Hermit Road, a little more than two miles / three kilometers west of Grand Canyon Village. Formerly known as Sentinel Point, this promontory on the southern rim of the canyon was renamed with the Powell Memorial’s construction and dedication in May 1918. Powell was the first non-native to run the course of the Colorado River, taking two expeditions in 1869 and 1871-72 from the Green River’s source in Wyoming to the junction with the Colorado in eastern Utah and then down the river through Glen and Grand Canyons. Powell was a leading public intellectual in the US in his time, leading numerous other scientific expeditions in the US west, teaching at Illinois Wesleyan and Illinois State universities, heading the US Geologic Survey (the USGS building in Reston, Virginia is named after him) and the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnology, all after having lost an arm in the Civil War while fighting for the Union army. Powell was an important and vocal early advocate for environmental conservation in the American West, arguing that the arid and semi-arid environments of much of the region were not conducive to the kind of settlement and land use patterns that had marked US expansion and development to that point. Like so many of his contemporaries, Powell also took a paternalistic and environmentally deterministic stance toward the native societies that were then being forced from the lands they had occupied and managed for generations, using the discourse of civilization and savagery in his explanations of their relationship with resources and environmental conditions, as well as their relations with the white-dominated American society that was steadily expanding across the continent. Though Powell’s scientific work helped shape the modern American environmental movement in vital ways, particularly in arguing for the conservation of resources and a broad emphasis on land use planning and limits to extensive agriculture in regions of water scarcity, this was at the time closely linked to ideas about the limits to cultural and social development societies faced based strictly on environmental factors, ideas that (mostly) lapsed in the 1940s in geography and other social sciences. Historian and novelist Wallace Stegner’s 1954 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West is probably the most in-depth treatment of Powell’s life and legacy, though I can’t vouch for the approach Stegner takes as I have not yet read it (the more recent edition linked here was for sale in all the park visitor centers and bookstores while I was at the Grand Canyon). You can also read Powell’s own accounts of his Colorado River expeditions, published in 1895 under the title The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.

Today the memorial to Powell stands on the renamed Powell Point, providing a magnificent view of the canyon to both the west and east, and commemorating the 1869 expedition, even though the river at the canyon’s bottom is not viewable from here, or for that matter, most other viewpoints along the rim. The memorial itself is rather simple, comprised of a memorial plaque featuring a bas relief of Powell and listing (most of) the members of his expeditionary parties affixed to a large piece of granite atop a stone and concrete structure that resembles the base of a stepped pyramid, all standing around 12 to 15 feet (4 or 5 meters) in height. Pieter Burggraaf provides a detailed account of the memorial’s conception, design, and construction in his 1997 article “The Untold Story of Grand Canyon’s John Wesley Powell Memorial,” in The Journal of Arizona History (vol 38, no 4). Burggraaf argues that the memorial, first approved for construction in 1909 but only dedicated in 1918, went through a series of redesigns and took much longer and more money to build in part because of the remoteness of the location (it was not so easy or cheap to move people, materials, and water to the Grand Canyon at the time, even with a rail connection) but also because of the politics of bureaucratic approval and debates among those who had personal connections with Powell and were involved in the memorial’s design. In the end, the memorial was finally dedicated at the canyon’s rim in May 1918, just a year before Congress made the Grand Canyon, already a national preserve and then monument under presidential orders issued by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and 1908, a national park. As Burggraaf recounts, drawing on the account provided by Powell contemporary Frederick Dellenbaugh in American Anthropologist (1918, vol 20, no 4), US Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane’s speech at the ceremony connected Powell’s expedition and other scientific work to western expansion and development, especially by taming the west’s wild nature and harnessing the region’s resources, noting that Powell’s:

name is forever linked with the romance of the conquest of the American continent. This monument will stand for the centuries to his honor, but there should be, and there will be, a greater monument to him erected by the people of the United States. For these waters will be turned upon millions of acres of desert land to make them fruitful. The soldiers returning from our great war across the ocean will, I trust, be put to work storing and training and leading out these waters upon the great plains below, and the homes that during the centuries to come will dot what is now waste land, will be the real monument to Major Powell.

This vision of wild western rivers tamed by American ingenuity and perseverance and directed toward the object of turning “waste” lands to agriculturally productive uses and white settlement has, to a great extent, come to pass with the construction of major dams that have controlled the flow of water and helped redirect it to farm fields and, more recently, urban expansion. The Colorado, restrained by the Hoover Dam downstream from the Grand Canyon and upstream by the Glen Canyon Dam, and drained of water along the way for thirsty fields, industries, and homes in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and California, is barely a trickle by the time it reaches its mouth at the Gulf of California in northern Mexico. This has profoundly disturbed environmental systems all along the river’s course, including the near-collapse of the rich estuarine environment that once existed at the river’s outlet, while feeding new ecological systems defined by extensive irrigation and increasing concerns about and conflicts over water rights under conditions of climate change and competing land uses. While extensive irrigation in Arizona and other parts of the southwest is not new (archaeological sites and native histories demonstrate that local peoples built and maintained their own elaborate irrigation systems in the region close to 1000 years ago), the current setup seems unsustainable without better conservation of scarce water in the context of urban and regional planning and further agricultural development. Phoenix, for example, is now the sixth largest city in the US, a sprawling mass of over 1.5 million people anchoring a larger metropolitan area of 4.3 million. Much of the city’s water comes from Lake Mead and the Colorado, though that reservoir’s levels have dropped in recent years, and there is concern over a rapid decline in the city’s ability to source water from there in the very short term future. California faces similar issues, as urban development, industry, agriculture, and conservation and native groups all compete for water in the central valleys, and state politics have long been shaped by water rights and the provision of northern water to southern environs. In the Grand Canyon itself, the seasonal variation in the river’s water level that once occurred naturally has given way to a controlled flow managed by dams upstream. As information provided at GCNP notes, this has meant the usual scouring of the canyon floor and channel by the river has ceased, leading to silting and disruption of ecosystem processes, allowing invasive species to take over in many areas.

Other signs of modern reshaping of the canyon landscape are also visible from Powell Point and the Powell Memorial. To highlight two of these briefly, there is the park road which is closed to private vehicular traffic for most of the year, and the remnants of the Orphan Mine, which operated until 1969 within the park on and just below the canyon rim. Hermit Road is used primarily for the Park Service shuttle buses, ferrying visitors to multiple stops along the 11 miles between the village and Hermit’s Rest, a facility for tourists that has been in place at the canyon edge since 1914. The restriction on private motor vehicles along this route is part of the Park Service’s attempt to manage the environmental impact of the park’s roughly 5 million annual visitors, the vast majority of whom arrive by private car. One of the central issues most large American national parks face is that they are “loved to death,” though this also emphasizes that these places preserved and conserved by the federal government for the public are living, mutable landscapes, subject to both historical forces of social, political, and economic change, as well as environmental impact by those using them today. Second, the Orphan Mine site is clearly visible from Powell Point, just to the east and along the rim. It is fenced off, inaccessible to visitors both because the site itself is unstable but also because the mine extracted large amounts of uranium ore over many decades and the immediate surroundings are somewhat irradiated by tailings. The park has a long history of multiple uses, and was no more a ‘pristine’ wilderness untouched by human activity at its founding than it is today with its millions of visitors and highly developed tourist infrastructure. Powell Memorial provides an opening via a highly localized place to see how majority white American society’s expansion westward has changed and remade the wider landscape and region, first through expropriation of native peoples, then through exploration and surveying, leading to extension of settlement, agriculture, and industry that depend on intensive use of scarce resources. Good reads on how we might understand these processes historically and how we relate to these seemingly ‘wild’ places can be found in Richard White’s excellent and readable 1994 book The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River, and in William Cronon’s 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness.”

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