John Wesley Powell and the Reimagination of the Arid West

April 17 (Tuesday), 6 p.m., Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole – Open to Public. Presentation: John Wesley Powell and the reimagination of the Arid West, Presented by Tom Minckley, University of Wyoming, Department of Geography

150 years ago John Wesley Powell was planning his first expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers. The first exploration, launched from Green River Wyoming provided information on the last of the unknown spaces in the contemporaneous United States and launched Powell into fame as one of the great American explorers. Powell, along with other government expeditions went on to systematically map the resources of the arid west. However, Powell focused on the region’s water, how it could be developed and how it eventually would be developed.


We are planning a 150th anniversary of the Colorado River Exploration Expedition, which offers an opportunity to once again begin a systematic and deliberate expedition into the unexplored territory of Western economies, politics, and ideologies as they relate to the water resources of the Colorado River Basin. Powell was able to travel through a continuous, natural riparian ecosystem. This experience is no longer possible, as the system is now separated into two basins, with three major dams, 15 management areas, and over 20 significant laws governing the allocation of Colorado River water. Because of these major differences, our expedition is not a reenactment of the past, but rather a re-envisioning of our future that engages traditional, historic, and contemporary river ecosystem perspectives to derive proactive management strategies, integrating community values, science, and humanities through an analysis of culture, and informed management.


Powells’ efforts consolidated the individual government expeditions into one unified, civilian-run research organization of the United States, the US Geological Survey (USGS).  With the 150th anniversary of the first Powell expedition we look for the opportunity to query the past, and to inform the future in a way Powell did throughout his career. What are opportunities and obstacles to resource development in the West? As in Powells’ time, water will be the major point of concern for the western American states.  Video