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The Forgotten Treasure In These American Lands

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“All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.”—Joan Didion, “Notes From a Native Daughter”Idaho’s Treasure Valley lies in the western Snake River plain, a stretch of semi-arid land with sagebrush-covered hillsides and green river valleys. My great-great-great-grandparents homesteaded there in the early 20th century. As a child, I took rafting trips down the Payette River outside Horseshoe Bend, picked buttercup bouquets in the mountains, and helped my mom can peaches from the local farm stand.Farming most colors my memories of the land: Idaho’s agriculture industry is the single largest contributor to the state’s economy. In 2018, Edible Idaho reported that only 20 percent of all U.S. farmland has soil of the quality comparable to the Treasure Valley. This is, as the American Farmland Trust’s Julia Freegood put it, “the crème de la crème of agricultural land.” But farms throughout the Treasure Valley are quickly transforming into suburbs these days—the broad stretches of green turning to gray, fields morphing into cul-de-sacs and strip malls. My drives from the Boise airport to my family’s home in the northwest are increasingly punctuated by the loss of earth to asphalt. This explosion of growth is much larger than Boise: it is part of a centuries-long transformation of farm towns and cities in the West. The boom originated in California in the last century, and these days it is transforming cities like Boise, Spokane, and Reno—places where developers reportedly can’t build homes and apartments fast enough. In 2017, an exurb of Boise called Meridian was the fifth-fastest-growing city in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. And among the top 10 states that grew from 2017 to 2018, the Census found that the top four are Western, arid states: Nevada, Utah, Idaho, and Arizona. One report warns that by the year 2100, Idaho’s Treasure Valley “could be completely unrecognizable to the people who live there today.” But it didn’t have to be this way. In the 19th century, a once-renowned Western explorer and scientist suggested that development of the West should include and support farmers. He warned against the sort of booming development that characterizes suburban sprawl. And I wonder whether, if we had listened to John Wesley Powell’s advice—and not mostly ignored his prophetic warnings—the Treasure Valley’s lost farmland might still exist.***This year marks the sesquicentennial of explorer Powell’s expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in 1869. Perhaps more than any other man of his time, he comprehended the limits of Western geography, and suggested that inhabiting the land would require a far different set of rhythms than those we had cultivated up to that point. He questioned the entire orthodoxy shaping the West during his age—an orthodoxy that is shaping it still. John Wesley Powell (Wikimedia Commons)Born in 1834, John Wesley Powell served in the Army during the Civil War, and lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh. After 1867, he led a series of expeditions through the West: along the Rockies and the Colorado River, through Utah farming communities and the Grand Canyon. During each of his expeditions, Powell meticulously studied the West’s topography, climate, and hydrology. Powell’s trips throughout the West convinced him that the region’s aridity must sculpt the ways in which it was cultivated and farmed. In 1878, he published a Report on the Lands of the Arid Regions of the United States, suggesting that the watersheds of the West should determine state lines. He argued that the government should create careful surveys based on the topography of the West—very different from the crude, indifferent rectangular 160-acre parcels of federal land
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