Reflection on Powell’s connections with Alaska - Dee Williams

Joining SCREE from the great state of Alaska, I am naturally energized by the explicit interest within the Powell 150 Expedition to expand the visioning exercise in a way that promotes sustainability beyond the Colorado River basin and to frame the commemoration in the broader context of resource management challenges that face all the Western states.

I spent some time during our 6 day float through the 186 miles of the Glen Canyon reservoir thinking about relevant nexus points between Powell and Alaska, and came up with a few that might interest other people. First, I am aware there is a peak in Southeast Alaska that is named after Powell. That’s not too exciting, but worth a mention. Second, it is interesting to consider that coincident with the date of Powell’s launch from the Green River in 1869, William Seward was still actively struggling to justify his recent acquisition of the Alaska Territory in 1867. He visited Sitka, just as Powell launched his historic expedition, to declare that the spectacular landscape was rich in natural resources and “marine treasures”. In other words, both Powell in the Colorado Plateau and Seward in Alaska had to constantly fight the dominant view of the period that the unfamiliar land under exploration out West was a useless wasteland. They both knew that exploration and accurate mapping would provide the necessary turning point in the American struggle to comprehend the expansive continent.

Third, Powell had direct connections with William Healey Dall – a prominent scientist of his day who explored interior Alaska and famously identified numerous new species, including the Dall sheep, the Dall porpoise, and about 10 different mollusks that bear his name. In 1877 Powell published through his work at Smithsonian an article by Dall in the series Contributions to North American Ethnology. Dall was also a member of the Cosmos Club, founded by Powell in Washington DC, and was later directly hired by Powell to work with the USGS from 1884-1925. But the more interesting point is that Dall published a book in 1870 entitled Alaska and Its Resources, in which he (like Powell in the Colorado Basin) took the contrarian position that Alaska was not ripe for large scale development. Rather, Dall promoted the Powell perspective of “sober realism”, an analytic perspective by which a few key intellectuals of the period deliberately sidestepped the blind jingoism of the moment and attempted to find the proper balance between “over exploitation” and “under exploitation” of frontier resources. Dall argued in the wake of Powell that the situation in Alaska, like the arid lands of the West, was more conducive to collectivist effort than to small family farm pioneering. Since Powell, the West has been locked in a constant series of fierce debates over the proper balance of resource management, with Alaska simply the latest state in the Union to struggle with the awesome responsibility to finally “get the proper balance right”. That debate has found prominent lingering echoes in the public lands of the far North.

Fourth, perhaps the most substantive connection between Powell and Alaska lies in the legacy he created around science collaboration for decision making. The more I learn about Powell, the more fair it strikes me to credit him with pioneering the concept of what has come to be known as “stakeholder engagement”. Though the term was not yet coined until the 1960s, it was Powell who championed the timely emphasis that proper stewardship of resources required scientific knowledge mixed with broad public education and adaptive institutional outcomes. Powell repeatedly argued that the new conditions of the West demanded new institutions that properly reflected public interest. He labored in many ways to help America better understand the West through a deliberate transition from fable to fact. In the process, he substantially changed American ideas of what government ought to do and how it should work to achieve its proper role. He is often credited as the original sponsor of “science for the public welfare” (although the use of that term by Wallace Stegner and others does not generally reflect the perspective of Native Americans and their particular interests).

In 1890 Powell expanded his vision of stakeholder engagement in journal articles and in testimony before Congress and state legislatures. Powell argued that each watershed within each basin should be surveyed and opened to settlers as a single integrated unit. Topographic awareness should be followed by new arrangements of governance and responsibility that would allow each resident to obtain both knowledge and opportunity to influence the making of the rules of resource management. In this regard, my favorite Powell quotes are taken from his essay Institutions for the Arid Lands, published in Century Magazine, 1890, volume 40. “Hard is the heart, dull is the mind, and weak is the will of [those] who do not strive to secure wise institutions for the developing world of America.”… “The people are intelligent, industrious, enterprising, and wide awake to their own interest. On this wide globe and in all the centuries of human history there has never before been such a people. Their love of liberty is unbounded, their obedience to law unparalleled, and their reverence for justice profound. Everyman is a freeman king with power to rule himself, and they must be trusted with their own interests.” These are stirring words that remind us even today to trust in democracy, and to pursue within our institutions an adaptive management strategy for a truly dynamic society.

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