Archive for Thursday, January 18, 2001

Pioneer of conservation

Kansas University professor pens Powell biography

January 18, 2001


Donald Worster is pretty low-key about his latest project, but he's about the only one who is.

Worster, a distinguished professor of history at Kansas University, is the author of several well-received non-fiction tomes and an expert in the field of environmental history. He's devoted the last 10 years of his life to his latest book, "A River Running West: The Life of John Wesley Powell." And while this book also is winning accolades, Worster still can joke about its potential on the best-seller charts.

"The book is selling well, but it's not selling like a John Grisham novel," he says with a laugh.

All kidding aside, this latest work is being touted as a definite work by an author already heralded for such books as "The Wealth of Nature," "Under Western Skies" and "Dust Bowl." Worster is passionate about the history of the Western United States and the people who helped shape it. Enough so that he's spent years preparing for his new book.

"I've been writing and researching for the last five years, but I've been thinking about it, reading and writing about it for the last 10 years," Worster says. "Like most people at the university, it's difficult to write during the academic year, so I do my major writing in the summer."

Worster has his hands full with traveling to give seminars, committee meetings and working with graduate students, so it's a real feat to have produced such a biography.

"It's a struggle to juggle so many things and continue writing, but I'm not unique among university people," he says.

Retelling a life story

Powell's story needed to be retold, Worster says. John Wesley Powell was instrumental in surveying and mapping the Southwest, particularly the Colorado River and its plateau, and the Grand Canyon region. His endeavors included anthropology, geology, conservation and serving in federal government positions. He should probably be as famous to history students as other Western explorers, but he's been overlooked for decades.

Worster's book could change all that.

"He was an amazing American for his time. He was a hero, maybe even more so than Lewis and Clark," Worster says.

Powell spent extensive amounts of time studying and surveying the arid regions of the Old West. He was particularly concerned with the haphazard ways it was being settled and exploited, and he became a leading conservationist.

His ideas made him a lot of enemies, particularly among conservative Western political leaders, and he was eventually forced out of holding governmental positions. During his life he served as head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Powell's ideas were considered extreme for that time period.

"He promoted a fundamental rethinking of how the arid West was used and developed. He recognized the vulnerability of the land." Worster says. "His ideas were radical in that they suggested a less 'hell-bent-for-leather' approach to settling the land."

Powell advocated land management at the local level, with cities organized and laid out around the regions' natural rivers and draws. He felt the arbitrary and political system of laying out counties and states would overtax the land's natural resources. But his protests went mostly ignored by city planners and land developers.

So what would Powell think of how the Old West has been developed? Worster is about the only one who can venture a guess.

"I imagine he would be shocked at such places as Las Vegas, or California a huge state sprawling in every direction with its 35 million people," he says.

But despite Powell's unpopular views, he remains a part of Western history. He even has a mountain, a lake and a city named after him.

"His life was not a tragedy," Worster says. "He is remembered."

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