Category Archives: environmental stewardship

The Arid Region of the United States and its Afterlife: Beyond the 100th Meridian

The map may not be the territory.  But it shapes one’s relation to the territory–and to the presence of water in the land, as well as the land itself.  John Wesley Powell had a clear idea of the importance of mapping the sustainability of his audience’s relation to the new nature of the aridity of the plains states and western territories in the 1870s, when he used his deep knowledge of plants and foliage of the region that was distinguished by a deeply fragile economy of water to try to convince the U.S. Congress of re-organizing the region’s settlement, in the face of increasing hopes for its development:   by bounding the area beyond the hundredth meridian west as the “Arid Region,” as if it were a truly unknown land, not subject to the practices of surveying rectilinear boundary lines that the had extended west along the Mason-Dixon line, Powell sought to convey a better understanding of the permanence of drainage zones of the region as the best possible ways of understanding and planning its process of settlement in the way that would be most helpful to future residents, boosterism of the importance of young men going west to find futures notwithstanding.

Indeed, the mapping of how the “Arid Region” of the United States could be settled by John Wesley Powell created as the second Director of the United States Geological Survey, a post he held from 1881–1894, but which he had first expansively described in 1878.  The United States Congress followed Powell’s recommendation to consolidate the western surveys into the new U.S. Geological Survey, and he long sought to create a map capturing the fragile water ecology of the American West.  The completion of his classic report on the region first suggested a new relation to the distribution of water in the region in ways that would best serve all of its residents, and in his later map, he tried to articulate so clear a relation to the region’s future settlement.  Powell’s view on the need for systematic irrigation of the region stands in almost polemic relation to the place that the western states held in the spatial imaginary of the Homesteading Era:  indeed, his insistence that led to the charge to undertake a systematic irrigation survey of lands in the public domain of the wester United States in 1888, long a topic for which he had agitated, and his map of the region reflected a demand to integrate a topographic survey, hydrographic survey, and engineering survey of the region.  Perhaps the map offered a new sense of the territory, if “territory” includes the waterways that would be able to adequately irrigate all open lands.

Arid Region of US

For the reception of Major John Wesley Powell’s attempt to map what he called the “Arid Region of the United States” reveals both he difficulty in mapping the relation of water to the land, and the appeal that a piece of paper might gain over time.  The detailed map provided something of a ground plan and register of how the arid region might be best inhabited, and of the relation to the land and landwater of a region’s inhabitants.  And it provides an early recognition of problems of water management and distribution in the western states–captured in its naming simply as the “Arid Region” as if to set it apart from the plentiful water in other regions–that later eras began to appreciate in ways that Powell’s contemporaries were less able to see in his ambitious attempt to reorganize the management of its regions around its multiple inland watersheds that he had hoped to canalize.  For Powell’s ambitious 1890 remapping of lands west of the 100° meridian in the United States tried to encompass their unique aridity and to pose a solution for its future inhabitants with special attention to its drainage districts–as discreet riverine watersheds.

Arid Lands ReservationsArid Region of the United States (1890); detail

The best practices that motivated Powell’s map as a basis to orient the government to the land’s groundwater.  The distinctive scarcity of water in the western states became evident in a time of sustained drought, giving unexpected currency to how Powell’s map reoriented readers to the “Arid Region of the United States.”  The brightly colored map to which the explorer, geographer, and anthropologist not only dedicated an extreme amount of attention in his later life, and of which he became something of an evangelist, suggests a early recognition of the scarcity of water and its management, in an era when there is a specter of considerable anger around poor practices of water management in much of the western states, tempered by an expectation that groundwater would be available for farming and irrigation.

The rivers in the United States are quite widely distributed, leaving much of the western plateaux at a distance from riverine waterways–

Western Rivers.pngTim Sinott

–and the image of Virgin Land so deeply ingrained across that regions settlement that its unique character of low rainfall and widely dispersed water sources was erased in the spatial imaginary which replaced the detailed map Powell of the administration of groundwater in the western states that Powell had created with his surveying team as a guide to the region that he knew so well, and which he sought to communicate when he became second director of the United States Geographical Surveys (1881–1894).  The governmental office did not give him authority to organize , but to create a new map that might better organize the nation to the lesser rainwater in what was known as the Great American Desert.  For Powell attempted to re-orient homesteaders to the imperative of western migration through the map, by organizing water administration and the future prospect for canalization in order to grow prospects for the irrigation of the region and its future farmlands that have considerable ethical power to speak to us today.

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Filed under arid region of the United States, data visualization, drought, environmental stewardship, water management

On the Proposed Balkanization of California

Timothy C. Draper fondly reminisced that “I grew up in the state that was number one in education, the number one place to do business and the best place to live.”  The venture capitalist who brought the nation hotmail, Skype, and Tesla was savoring the new mental landscape that he argues would be recaptured by remapping California as six separate states. That simple cartographic intervention, and the “autonomy” it would serve to return each region–or all of its six new states to be carved from it–would fulfill the ideals of a rapidly receding past, and allow each to independnetly confront the problems of a crumbling infrastructure, poorly performing public schools, and pension obligations for state workers, and taxation practices that he judges unfriendly to business.  The “start-up guy” sought to restart the project of California in 2014, spending $5.2 million to liberate each of the state’s six parts, which failed to make the ballot, if it gained the national spotlight thanks to Stephen Colbert. The self-defined “start-up guy” returned to the table to reparse the largest state in the union in 2018, when the notion of national division gained traction in the national news, with hopes to give a greater tax franchise to at least two of the regions–the rump “California” around Los Angeles and Orange County; “North California;” and “South California”–as if to allow citizens to self-sort themselves into their own “like-minded” communities and unique styles of governing, to reboot the largest state that had just become too populous into three.

The insistence of these aspirations to cartographic self-definition suggests, in other words, the fiction of independence that Silicon Valley has been selling the nation for some time. As Draper has argued American would be best by adopting Bitcoin as its national currency, cutting out the Federal Reserve as so much excess baggage, the big stakes questions as land maintenance, coastal commissions, and Fish & Wildlife would be deferred, as would many questions of ecological conservation and fire management that are currently on the front burners of most Californians. By persuading us to see the state as a set of discrete regions, however, bushy-eyebrowed Draper hopes to urge voters to realize his political strategy to divide California into six cantons of different hues.  And when he rolled out the project for dividing the state–and its resources and economy–once again into three states,  one named simply “California” on the coast below San Jose to Los Angeles, bounded by the “Northern” and “Southern” California, as if in an attempt to make the map look clearer, Draper seeks to persuade voters to overlook the complex web of natural resources (like water), but huge discrepancies in public education, pension plans, transportation needs, and water management that demand resolution in coming decades–and in effect heighten the levels of inequality already permeating the state, as well as diluting its political voice.

A six-color map of the state offered the rallying call to generate support for his map to renewed economic prosperity–a spectrum intent to underscore inherent differences between each region.  The cartographic division of the state became a logo for a movement, found a nice logo in six colors, designed to strike a key in reflect the parched nature of the more arid (purple; red; orange) and waterless or irrigated areas of the state, and to suggest they were best left to fend for themselves, especially, perhaps, the orange Southern California and the Imperial Valley and bright red Central California’s desert. The coastal communities would have their liberties, and the tax franchises that went with them.

New Map of California

Draper’s initiative to “divide” California into six California’s–six separate states–picks up the inventive cartographies of division that partition the United States into more “rational” or “reasonable” mega-regions, macro-states, or mini-countries, and betrays what little sense he has of the environmental or ecological status of the state.  His proposal stands at odds to how, back in 1837, the German-American jurist Franz Lieber famously doubted that merely altering hues of any map could affect its political economy. He doubted that “the face of our country would change” as a result, and saw little impact for changing a map’s color-scheme, and hoped that “if the engravers were able to sell their maps less boisterously painted and not as they are now, each county of each state in flaming red, bright yellow, or a flagrant orange dye arrayed, like the cover produced by the united efforts of a quilting match.”  Lieber had studied topographic mapping in Dresden before coming to America, and meant to contrast realities of political economy with the coloration of maps–probably contrasting the four-color maps of the United States to those of Prussia with his Berlin-trained mind’s eye; the flagrant color-scheme of a map, however, becomes a device for Draper to urge that we remake California into six “political entities” that most of those living in them wouldn’t actually recognize.

In treating California as a landmass whose extent is able to be parceled into six–or three–blocks, the iconic visualization presumes “California” is not a landscape bound by coastal rivers, streams, glacial ice-pack, or viaducts, but might be parsed as the graphic designer wishes, in what seems the utter alienation of map from place.  By converting California to six cantons, the hope is to remake the state as six more manageable mega-regions to bridge perceived distances between government and Californians.  Draper represents the remapping of the state as a means to reconnect its residents to a model of good government in something of an extension of the argument of states’ rights.  The graphical division of the Golden State into six entities, maxi-regions or mini-states, each emptied of local meaning and purged of cities, provides the rallying cry of the venture capitalist’s movement for the May 2016 ballot, having gained over 1.3 million signatories of in-state residents–at the time of its submission in mid-July–and of a charge that Draper hopes would open up the possibility that other states follow the lead of his movement to break into separate states as well.

The return to the map as an iconic form of taking self-consciousness as Draper urges is a bit odd, to be sure, for a libertarian. For the image of the map as an icon of national destiny–the pentagon of France; the “lebensraum” of Germany; the unity of China–has a distinctly nationalist heritage, as does the call for a Red-State America with disturbing similarities in its contours to the Confederate States of America. The map indeed conceals, by a nice slight of hand, how much of California is “open space” managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Defense, or Bureau of Land Management, in its attempt to carve up neat bundles of California in the hopes that these would align–or soon come to align–with independent interests. Fearing the administration of wilderness areas of the National Park Service or Forest Service during the Trump regime, Governor Jerry Brown had indeed not only filed a spate of twenty-four law suits against the Trump administration in 2017, the first year of the Trump Presidency, but questioned the validity of any attempt by the chief executive to sell or exchange land rights in the state, by pronouncing them void ab initio, without review by the State Land Commission, fearing the dismantling of hard-won environmental protections across the state.

The defense of undeveloped land that Brown holds dear and near was a pre-emptive strike that provoked a quick legal response from Jeff Sessions’ DOJ: “California was admitted to the Union upon the express condition that it would never interfere with the disposal of federal land,” he cautioned, defending the “rightful prerogatives” of the Interior Department, U.S. Military, and Bureau of Land Management “to buy, sell, exchange or donate federal properties in a lawful manner in the national interest” that should rightly make Californians fear the actual intent of the U.S. Government. While the admission of California to the United States in 1850 indeed stipulated that “the people of the said State, through their legislature or otherwise, shall never interfere with the primary disposal of the public lands within its limits,” the mandate for the state’s defense over those public lands may well be, in an era of accentuated climate change and fire danger, the rationale for rationale for administering public lands had so dramatically changed since the expropriation of public lands from indigenous tribes and mandates of public land management that the threat of their misadministration or maladministration by the rapacious Interior Dept. of the Trump era had grown pronounced–and fears of the placement of lands of the Bureau of Land Management and National Parks had been warranted, given the stunning removal of public lands protections in the first year of Trump’s administration, mostly directed to review the protections of federally owned lands from oil and gas drilling, groundwater mining, logging, and offshore drilling–all triggers for immediate protection–as well as removing responses to climate change from the administration of Park Service lands. The real fears of leasing lands for oil and gas extraction had led to the leasing of 223,200 acres of public lands to private individuals in FY 2014 alone, and the expansion of such leases would render the potential influx of cash as music to Draper’s libertarian ears.

While Draper’s initiative of the “Three Californias” was not openly framed by the tussle over land management over open spaces or wilderness areas, the fact of the federal management of 45% of California’s territory provoked fear of a slippage of protection of grazing rights, timber and forest management, and development of extractive industry that were cleverly concealed by the Three Californias, and which render California a fairly unique target of free market forces. The anger DOJ barely concealed in sniping at the “extreme state law attempting to frustrate federal policy” that Attorney General Sessions may have been born from venting about the state’s resistance to policies of border protection, and the incarceration of “illegal” migrants, with the pretense of drug enforcement, but created a unique opening for Draper’s initiative, an economic bottom-line of as limited ethical scope and compass one might associate with Don Draper, the fictional composite protagonist of “Mad Men,” but aligns closely with the brutal calculus of Tim Draper’s broad-strokes vision of governmental reform. Perhaps the true base-map, if often hidden, that lies beneath the busting up of California as a state are the network of environmental protections and protection of public lands and coasts, enforced by state regulations and commissions, that would be removed by the division of the state into cantons that would be open to the free market, pried from a vision of environmental stewardship.

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Filed under California, data visualizations, environmental stewardship, Six Californias, Timothy Draper