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2017 - ASEH Annual Conference Words: 285 words || 
1. Gregg, Sara. "Waste Lands: The Role of Expertise and Technology in Plans for Overcoming Natural Limits in the Early-20th-Century U. S. West" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ASEH Annual Conference, Drake Hotel, Chicago, IL, <Not Available>. 2020-01-19 <>
Publication Type: Panel Paper
Abstract: Hundreds of millions of acres of the public domain remained unclaimed in the early twentieth century, passed over by prospectors and homesteaders due to the perception that they were the “waste areas of the arid West,” as described by President Theodore Roosevelt in his Autobiography. Nevertheless, the new century witnessed the federal government launching vigorously into the development of dams, irrigation districts, and dryland farms throughout the West, confident that innovation and investment would overcome the physical challenges of arid landscapes. This confidence in the ability of technology to conquer physical and climatic obstacles reflects a turn-of-the century sense of the capacity for improvement by developing new adaptations to the environment.

In the years following 1909, the U.S. Congress expanded homesteading on non-irrigable lands to 320-acre claims, using the language of opportunity and advancement to suggest that new techniques could open up the agricultural potential of these lands, even without access to a regular supply of water. In the process, members of Congress and government scientists endorsed new forms of experimentation on the land, even as they acknowledged the marginality of lands in the semi-arid West for agriculture. This paper explores the natural disadvantages of the West’s “waste areas,” as well as the portrayals of the ease of overcoming these obstacles. It examines the varied rhetoric surrounding opportunity in the West, querying the role of scientific knowledge and its dissemination in developing the West. Specifically, how might we explain the complicity of Congress and the USGS in beckoning prospective farmers and ranchers from around the world to come and claim arid and semi-arid regions that had already been defined as “Waste Lands,” unviable for development?

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