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Published December 14, 2020
By Chavawn Kelley
Almost from the moment the oars of his wooden drift boat dipped into the flows of the Green River in Wyoming in 1869, John Wesley Powell began to shape Euro-American visions of this arid region. The Colorado River Basin, where Powell spent most of his time in the West, now supplies water to no fewer than 40 million people.
Recognizing the 150th anniversary of Powell’s epic 1869 expedition, two University of Wyoming professors and a University of Utah colleague have brought together a collection of original essays, artwork and maps that examine Powell’s legacy and how it might -- and might not -- inform approaches to a new “Great Unknown” in the Colorado River Basin.
Jason Robison, a UW professor of law; Thomas Minckley, a UW professor of geology and geophysics; and Daniel McCool, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Utah, are the editors of “Vision & Place: John Wesley Powell & Reimagining the Colorado River Basin,” published this fall by University of California Press.
“Excellent biographies on Powell have been written, including by Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster,” Robison says. “In ‘Vision & Place,’ we turn toward the basin’s future and use Powell’s ideas as a springboard for looking at water, public lands and Native Americans.”
In her essay “Powell as the Unwitting Godfather of Outdoor Recreation in the Great Unknown,” Emilene Ostlind suggests: “(Powell’s) vision offers a model for how we can think about protecting and using (public) lands simultaneously as we launch into the next ‘Great Unknown.’”
Ostlind is the editor and communications coordinator for UW’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources.
The new book is one piece of an umbrella project marking the anniversary of Powell’s expedition. Many “Vision & Place” contributors retraced Powell’s historic route in 2019 as part of the UW-led Sesquicentennial Colorado River Exploring Expedition (SCREE).
“Powell is revered by river runners,” says Minckley, the SCREE trip leader. “He was instrumental to so many aspects of science, art and policy in the arid West. We wanted to bring those voices to our own exploration of the region.”
Patrick Kikut, a senior lecturer in UW’s Department of Visual Arts, served as lead artist for “Vision & Place,” creating the book’s cover painting and coordinating the works of the book’s eight contributing artists. Bailey Russel, an associate lecturer who heads the department’s photography program, carried an 8-by-10-inch camera and a portable wet-plate darkroom through the Grand Canyon to produce tintype images included in the book.
Other contributors from UW are the late William Gribb, a professor emeritus from the Department of Geography; and from the Department of Visual Arts: Brandon Gellis, an assistant professor of graphic design and emergent technology, and David Jones, an instructional art technician and associate research scientist.
Glancing downstream, the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law will feature “Vision & Place” in a “green bag” (virtual) event Feb. 18, 2021. A panel of authors will discuss Powell’s vision and what lies ahead for the Colorado River Basin’s water, public lands and Native Americans. Learn more at https://law.utah.edu/event/vision-and-place-john-wesley-powell-and-reimagining-the-colorado-river-basin/.
Also in 2021, a documentary film of SCREE’s 1,000-mile, 70-day journey will be premiered. To view the trailer and learn more about the expedition, see www.powell150.org.