The Hundredth Meridianrnby Chilton Williamson, /r.rn29,000 LeaseholdersrnThe war on the West is not going badlyrn—from a Westerner’s point of view.rnAs of mid-February, salient victories includedrnthe successful filibuster, by Westernrnsenators, of Interior Secretary BrucernBabbitt’s range reform bill; the routing ofrnthe obnoxious Representative MikernSynar (Democrat-OK), the congressionalrninstigator of “reform”; the firing ofrnthe arrogant Jim Baca from his job asrnDirector of the Federal Bureau of LandrnManagement; and Secretary Babbitt’srndecision to adopt less confrontationalrnstrategies in the future, such as the creationrnof local grazing committees composedrnof ranchers, environmentalists,rnand recreationists. Best of all, therndoughty Commander in Chief of thernfederal troops, panicked by the unaccustomedrnsound of heavy artillery, the unfamiliarrnsmell of cordite, and the terrifyingrnsight of blood is, like the Duke ofrnPlaza Toro, leading his regiment fromrnbehind. In the din of battle, a modestrnand seemingly innocuous pronouncementrnby the U.S. Bureau of Reclamationrn—that, after 92 years in the businessrnof impounding and diverting free-flowingrnrivers, it has no plans to build morerndams—went ‘irtually unremarked, evenrnin the West where the great majority ofrnits former projects were constructed.rnStill, this quiet bureaucratic event may inrntime have a greater impact on the AmericanrnWest than anv number of land-usernreforms could ever have. As the factrnsinks m, it is likely to strike millions ofrnWesterners with intimations of disaster.rnOthers, more farsighted, may see in it thernmakings of regional salvation.rnHistorically, the West’s case for greaterrnautonomv has been compromised by itsrnbeing, unlike the Old South, substantiallyrnan economic creation of the federalrngovernment and of Eastern capital.rnPurchased from a foreign nation byrncongressional authorization and withrnfederal funds, the region and its aboriginesrnwere subdued by federal forcesrnwhile its settlers, most of them sociallyrnsmall potatoes and poor as Job’s turkey,rnhad to be subsidized in their enterprisernby Congress and capitalized by the samernpowerful paleface interests they hadrnsought to escape in the first place. Thernwinning of the West, it could truthfullyrnbe said, was not accomplished by Westernersrnalone; rather it was a national effort,rnlike the later Civil Rights Revolution,rnthe War on Poverty, and the BattlernAgainst AIDS. So when the SagebrushrnRebellion broke out a decade and a halfrnago and the rebels appeared to be staringrnaround for their own Fort Sumter tornshell, little more was required to makernthem look foolish than for “conservatives”rnlike George Will to remind themrnhaughtily that they were effectivelyrnsquatters on land belonging to All thernPeople, poor relatives camped out in arnfield behind the Big House. Easternrncommentators noted that water developmentrnin the arid West was entirelyrnthe work of the federal government, paidrnfor by All the Taxpayers without whosernlargesse there would scarcely be anyrnWestern settlement at all. It was evenrnmeanly suggested that conservativernWesterners, ever contemptuous of nationalrnwelfarism, as water welfarists werernactually its greatest beneficiaries. Therernis enough truth in both of these claims tornhurt, and more than enough to give honestrnWesterners and their apologists pausernfor sober reflection.rnA massive federal irrigation programrnwas not the idea of the early settlersrnwho arrived on the arid highlands west ofrnthe Hundredth Meridian in response tornthe Homestead Act, the Desert LandsrnAct, the Timber and Stone Act, thernSwamp and Overflow Act—attempts byrnCongress to deny (and to encouragernWestern settlers to deny) the fact, plainrnto anyone who had ever set foot in thernDakotas or in Utah and Colorado andrnWyoming territories (of course hardlyrnany congressman had), that the almostrnunbelievable superabundance of landrnwas matched by the equally incrediblernabsence of water. Major John WesleyrnPowell, the one-armed Civil War veteranrnwho in 1869 led the Powell GeographicrnExpedition in four wooden dories downrnthe Green River from the town of GreenrnRiver, Wyoming, to Grand Wash Cliffsrnat the confluence of the Colorado andrnVirgin rivers, perceived at once that thernland rush being stimulated by therngovernment and encouraged by everyrnsort of lying and unscrupulous entrepreneurrnwould turn into a Gadarenernmarathon unless the problem of apportioningrnsettlement in accordance withrnthe available water were tackled head onrnand in a responsible manner. In his Reportrnon the Lands of the Arid Region ofrnthe United States, with a More DetailedrnAccount of the Lands of Utah and in hisrnsubsequent testimony before Congressrnconcerning the report, he insisted thatrnonly a small fraction of the Westernrnlands was irrigable; that the irrigablernparts were restricted almost entirely to riparianrnareas; and that, even so, the costrnof building dams, reservoirs, and irrigationrnsystems would be affordable onlyrnby the federal government, which wouldrneither have to take care of the job orrnwatch the Western migration founder.rn(Powell argued further that state boundariesrnshould be surveyed around watershedsrn—what environmentalists todayrncall “ecosystem management”—whilernsettlers ought to be encouraged to holdrnlands in common on the plan of thernMexican eijido, for the purposes of minimizingrnthe fencing of the open rangernand maximizing the efficient use of water.)rnThough he managed to procurernshort-term funding for an irrigation survey,rnPowell’s ideas were anathema in anrnera of fortune-seekers, territorial boosters,rnprofessional and commercial optimists,rnland-grab artists, and self-styledrnrugged individualists eager to proclaimrnthat they had no need of federal charity.rnThis spirit of manly independence failedrnto withstand the droughts—predictedrnby Powell—of the final decades of thern19th century and was knocked down forrnthe count by those of the 1930’s: almostrnovernight, federal irrigation projectsrnstruck everyone as the obvious solutionrnto the West’s water problem, these to bernbuilt for—but not paid for by—the legionsrnof yeomen farmers beholden tornnobody. “The result,” Marc Reisner saysrnMAY 1994/49rnrnrn