By James M. Decker

John Wesley Powell was an American scientist, soldier, and explorer. He lost most of one arm to a rifle bullet at the Battle of Shiloh in the American Civil War and though this injury pained Major Powell the rest of his life, it didn’t stop him. In 1869, armed with nine men and four dubious wooden boats, he set out to map the unexplored parts of the Colorado River. That journey is a tale within itself (and many books have been written to that effect), but three months later, Powell’s group became the first to navigate the Colorado River all the way through the treacherous, mysterious Grand Canyon. Powell would devote rest of his life to the American West, as a geologist, ethnographer, and chief of the U.S. Geological Survey as it undertook the audacious goal to map the entire Western United States.

Powell was deeply controversial in his day. He made powerful enemies out of Western politicians, promoters, and land speculators who were selling the American West as a proverbial Garden of Eden. These “boomers” called for rapid settlement and development, predicting the West as America’s future population center. Though it was dry, they claimed rain would “follow the plow” — more homesteaders would cause the climate to become wetter and more humid (this once-widespread delusion, which helped cause the Dust Bowl, is a topic for a different day).

Powell saw the West as a land of promise, but carefully planned. Water was scarce. This country was very different from “back East.” He called for the West to be surveyed and lands classified according to best use, then developed accordingly. Powell believed in a “ready, aim, fire” philosophy. For his trouble, he was branded a heretic, stripped of his Congressional appropriations, and removed from his post at the USGS. Over 120 years later, many fights in the West — water scarcity, environmental issues, rapid development of large cities — were foreseen by Major Powell. The Dust Bowl itself might have been prevented had the country listened to Powell.

Last week, I attended the Texas Midwest Community Network’s annual seminar for newly elected local officials. At this event, regional leaders discussed various topics of city administration and community leadership with new council members and mayors. Several times, attendees asked about economic development. How do we bring business to our towns? Texas is booming. Our statewide leaders constantly boast about job creation and economic growth. Why aren’t our rural communities benefiting? These are questions that all community leaders should think about. Several speakers emphasized the importance of having a plan and pursuing that plan. As I thought of planning, I thought of John Wesley Powell. As the boomers raced to develop the West, Powell warned against developing without a plan. He was shouted down in the national conversation for essentially asking America to have a plan, to aim THEN fire. 

As we think about economic development, we should think like Powell, not the boomers. Our rural landscape is littered with economic development ideas that became disasters. The tale is told in abandoned facilities (often built with taxpayer dollars), junked equipment stacked on vacant lots, and employee layoffs. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t stick our neck out. Sometimes, good ideas and intelligent decisions result in failure. We cannot avoid failure or we’ll never accomplish anything great.

But sometimes, rural economic development victories feel few and far between, so we reach for whatever opportunity arises. We need jobs and new investment, so the taxpayers don’t get frustrated with us. If we don’t seize an opportunity that passes by, some other town will grab it. It can be aggravating to look down the road and see good things happening in another city and wonder “why not us?” I get it. But short-term gains are not always long-term successes. Just ask the Western states embroiled in decades-long fights over water supplies that they thought were infinite. If only they had listened to Powell, they might have known water was scarce. 

It seems like we have unlimited land to develop in our communities, but that can change quickly. What if we get so desperate for short-term gain that we give away all the best development sites to subpar opportunities? What happens when a true game-changing opportunity comes to town and we can’t support it? Short term gains are important, but not at the expense of long-term victories.

What if we had the patience and the courage to develop our rural communities like Major Powell wanted to develop the West? What if we first aim at the target — identify our resources and their best use — and then grow from there?

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at Listen to our podcast interview with James here.


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