Geologists of Jackson Hole SCREE Talk

Dr. Tom Minckley of the University of Wyoming is giving a talk this evening titled, John Wesley Powell and the Reimagination of the Arid West. If your are in Jackson Hole and want to learn more about the Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition, swing by the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole this evening.  The talk begins at 6 PM. We hope to see you there!  More information below.


The Powell Survey of the 1870s: Art & Science from the Saddle

By John Weisheit


The most excellent professional papers produced by the Powell Survey (1871 to 1879), and formally called the United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain Region, were accomplished more from land-based expeditions, than the famous river expeditions of 1869 and 1871.

The professional papers of the Powell Survey are:

1876 - Geology of the Eastern Portion of the Uinta Mountains by John Wesley Powell

1877 - The Geology of the Henry Mountains by Grove K. Gilbert

1879 - Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States by Powell, Gilbert, Dutton and Almon H. Thompson.  

1880 - Report on the Geology of the High Plateaus of Utah by Clarence E. Dutton.

1882 - Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, also by Dutton.

The collective work of Powell, Dutton and Gilbert laid the foundation for the earth science we now call geomorphology.

The artwork of the Powell Survey are:

Photos by E. O. Beaman (and others) and photos by John K. Hillers.

Art by William Henry Holmes.

Maps by Almon Thompson and others.

John Strong Newberry (1822-1892) was the most influential mentor of the individuals who became the Powell Survey. Eleven years before Powell completed his river trip, Newberry had already explored the lowermost section of the Colorado River by steamboat, and then by horseback surveyed roughly the bottom of the Grand Canyon at Diamond Creek. Later, Newberry observed the ruins of the Ancestral Puebloans near Mesa Verde and reached, by horseback and probably within a few miles, the Confluence in Canyonlands (the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers); all three areas are now national parks. Report on the Exploring Expedition of 1857.

Newberry was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences.  He used his influence with Congress to secure funding for the Powell Survey. Newberry's influence also convinced Congress to consolidate the four national surveys into one entity, the United States Geological Survey(USGS), of which Powell served as it's second director. 

As director of the Ohio Survey, Newberry personally mentored Grove K. Gilbert, who became America's great engine of scientific research. Both Newberry and Gilbert have written professional papers on the igneous intrusive mountains of the Colorado Plateau--the Abajos and the Henry's, respectively.

Click here to read more about the federal surveys before the Civil War.


John Wesley Powell (1834-1902). Without a doubt, no man of the 19th century knew the Colorado Plateau better than Powell. The first chapter in Exploration of the Colorado River of the West testifies to this fact.

The Colorado Plateau geophysical province is divided into six sections, all traveled by Powell on the saddle: the Uinta Basin, Canyonlands, High Plateaus, Grand Canyon, Navajo, and Datil. See Cenozoic Geology of the Colorado Plateau by Charles Hunt (1956).

Powell also had an intimate knowledge of the Colorado River through the geophysical provinces of the Rocky Mountains and the Basin and Range. Generally, in his prepared talks or testimony, Powell framed the river's big picture with his audience via the watershed approach

Grove K. Gilbert (1843-1918). Gilbert defected from the survey of Lt. George Wheeler upon Powell's invitation to attend his. Gilbert was with Wheeler in the autumn of 1871 when that survey rowed/towed boats up the Colorado River to Diamond Creek in Western Grand Canyon, and then left the area by trail on horseback.

Gilbert did this because Powell sincerely intended to produce the highest quality science and literature without wasting time and money. Gilbert understood that this could not happen under Wheeler's direction.

Edwin McKee, considered the father of Grand Canyon geology, viewed Grove K. Gilbert as America's greatest geologist. Few would argue this point: twice Gilbert served as the president of the Geological Society of America. Gilbert was Powell's first choice to serve as his successor in the USGS. The post went to Charles Walcott, another famous Grand Canyon geologist. Gilbert instead preferred to serve as chief geologist for the USGS, where he established the principles of nomenclature and cartography.

His writings are masterpieces interpreting such subjects as igneous intrusive mountains (laccolith), Basin and Range extension, the glacial phenomenon, pluvial lakes (Lake Bonneville), the denudation of the Colorado Plateau, and debris flows. After the death of his wife Fannie (whom he met at a dance in Powell's home) he partnered with Alice Eastwood (whom he met on a Sierra Club excursion). Ms. Eastwood was a botanist who conducted research on the Colorado Plateau before meeting her husband.

Clarence E. Dutton (1841-1912). Powell borrowed Dutton from the U. S. Army where he served as an officer in the Ordinance Corps (weaponry).  His specialty was chemistry and metallurgy, which prepared him for the assignments Powell gave him, namely, igneous extrusive structures (volcanism). Dutton worked on the igneous extrusive structures of western Grand Canyon, western New Mexico, Hawaii and the Cascades (Newberry actually preceeded Dutton in describing the extrusives of the Basin and Range and the Cascades).

His monograph The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District (1882) is highly prized by modern-day book collectors. Dutton's geologic insight was impressive, but his ability as a nature writer was uncanny. Dr. Wallace Stegner did his graduate thesis on the literary work of Dutton and called him "the John Muir of the Colorado Plateau." Stegner's infamous book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West is an outreach of that graduate work.

Almon H. Thompson (1839-1906). Thompson's contribution to the Powell Survey is a story of incredible fortitude, perseverance and unselfishness. He was Powell's cartographer and produced the first accurate map of the Utah Territory. Thompson, from the saddle, discovered the last unknown river of the contiguous United States, the Escalante River. He also was the first known Euro-American to reach the summit of the Henry Mountains, Mt. Ellen, named after his wife and sister of John Wesley Powell. The Henry Mountains were the last mountainous range of the contiguous United States to receive a name, which was gifted to Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithsonian Institute and benefactor of the Powell Survey.

The professional papers of the Powell Survey, though over 130-years old, are very impressive works of science and art, especially Gilbert's monograph on the Henry Mountains. This report also serves as a geological history of the Colorado River and is, actually, the most brilliant investigation I have ever read.

Additional reading:

Great Surveys of the American West, by Richard A. Bartlett

A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell, by Donald Worster.

Grove Karl Gilbert: A Great Engine of Research, by Stephen J. Pyne.

How the Canyon Became Grand, by Stephen J. Pyne.

Notes from the 2017 Upper Colorado River Basin Forum

By Rica Fulton

Innovation, community, and resilience emulated from passionate conversations at this year’s Upper Colorado River Basin Forum (UCRBF) hosted by Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado this past November.  “Stories from the Field” were heard from academics, ranchers, authors, boaters, and scientists. Keynote Speakers Brian Richter and John Fleck delivered hopeful discourses stemming from their books “Chasing Sustainability “and “Water is for Fighting and Other Myths about Water in the West,” respectively. 

I was fortunate enough to present a poster at the Forum stemming from my preliminary thesis work at the University of Wyoming regarding stakeholder collaboration and ecological flow regimes along the Dolores River. Representatives from Colorado Parks & Wildlife and American Whitewater, who both played leading roles in the logistics of the spill this past summer, were kindly willing to give me some fantastic feedback.

Politically, culturally, and environmentally the Colorado River Basin has been massively transformed since the genesis of the 1922 Colorado River Compact. The deceitfully simple document designates Lee’s Ferry as the water delivery point between the Upper and Lower Basins as well as lays out the allocation scheme between the seven states (yet notably ignoring the presence of Indian Reserved Rights and Mexico).  Since 1922, an immense number of laws, treaties, and agreements have augmented the Colorado River Compact, creating a complex management framework, to say the least.

Implanting the evolving values of society, climate change, and population growth into the existing framework of Colorado River policy is a rubix-cube of epic hydrologic proportions. Nowadays, the Colorado River is on the brink of a shortage call from the Department of the Interior, and drought contingency planning is on the rise.  State representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico along with Amy Haas the Deputy Executive Director and General Council of the Upper Colorado River Commission provided preliminary state and federal plans for the imminent call from the Secretary of the Interior. While certain aspects of the Commission's plans show a step in the right direction, it is concerning to me to see the states still trying to further develop Colorado River Water, such as the case with Utah's proposed Lake Powell Pipeline. 

Further, the trickle-down impact of persisting drought and population growth could be seen through presentations from NASA climate scientists, climatologists from CU Boulder, and surprisingly,  social scientists from USGS. Conservation efforts require snow scientists, climate science, regional knowledge, policymakers, agriculturalists, soil scientists, water managers, and many other groups working together for a common cause. The outcome at the forum being an interdisciplinary pool of exceptionally passionate water nerds.   

Different scales of water organizations were masterfully represented throughout the Forum, showing different levels of conservation from the Federal level down to irrigation districts and individuals. Culturally, policymakers and agriculturists may have conflicting views as to the uses of water, which has lead to misconceptions about water conservation initiatives.  Federal-level "Demand Management" initiatives and Irrigation District-level conservation efforts sometimes look different in the alfalfa field than they do in a Washington D.C. conference room. That shows the importance of bridging the gap between different scales of water management as well as different values regarding water use moving forward.  

Colossal strides still need to be taken to ensure that the Colorado River Basin will have a viable future. Conversations that occur between different stakeholders in venues such as the one provided by Colorado Mesa University provide a platform for idea- sharing and trust-fostering. I continue to preserve hope that the immense passion evoked by the Colorado River into Westerners will encourage the forthcoming management decisions in the Basin to be thoughtful, humble, and holistic.

Visit to check out the 2017 presentations.