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Journal of Policy History 15.3 (2003) 301-323

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Local Experience and National Policy in Federal Reclamation:
The Shoshone Project, 1909-1953

Robert E. Bonner

When the Newlands Reclamation Act was passed in 1902, it inaugurated an ambitious program of federal dam- and canal-building aimed at opening public land in the West to homesteading through irrigation. Ordinary Americans from all walks of life were to be given the opportunity to take out homesteads on land where the Reclamation Service had made water available; the land was free, but the cost of building the dams and canals was to be repaid to the federal government over a ten-year period. The overriding goal of federal Reclamation in the early years was to reinvigorate the agrarian tradition of America by making usable otherwise useless public land. 1

More than a few historians have interested themselves in the history of the Reclamation Service, or, as it became known after 1924, the Bureau of Reclamation. Most of them, however, have emphasized the national dimensions of the policy, the growth of the bureaucracy and the power of the Bureau of Reclamation, and other large issues of national importance. 2 The focus of historians on national policy and politics has given us a way of thinking about Reclamation that more or less naturally diverts attention away from the local experience. When historians have concentrated on local experience, they have frequently seen it as one of simple resistance to the national power of the Bureau. 3 On the face of it, this seems too simple a view. Undoubtedly there was conflict, but it is reasonable to inquire if that is all there was. This article sets out to reopen the question: What was the character of the relationship between Reclamation settlers and Reclamation managers, and how did it change [End Page 301] over time? And what meaning can we attach to changes in this relationship?

The historiographical context in which the answer to the first question will fit was established by Samuel P. Hays in Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency. This famous book, still influential after forty years, argued that the conservation agencies of the Progressive Era constituted a professional managing elite determined to effect a rational program of resource management. This elite had to contend with local political interests intent on defending their access to or control over these resources. Concerned primarily with the progress of modernization generally, Hays painted a large canvas. He rarely, for instance, dealt with Reclamation at the level of individual projects, where the symmetry of his theoretical analysis might have been in jeopardy. Conceiving the issue in terms of conflict as he did, he left the resolution of the conflict open; the question of how conservation decisions would be made, in his view, was posed but not answered in the Progressive Era. 4

The idea that the national conservation agencies were experts bringing modern and efficient government to a benighted populace has not fared well in recent years. Although the importance of the Progressive vision as outlined by Hays remains, many scholars have chosen rather to inquire into the practice of the federal conservation managers. In terms of the Bureau of Reclamation, no one has done more important work than Donald J. Pisani, whose new study of the bureau brings together much of the last two decades of empirical scholarship. Pisani destroys systematically and for all time the notion that the people who ran the Reclamation Service had a coherent, effective vision for their program. Compromised by their own incompetence and political weakness, the leaders of the Reclamation program, as he sees them, failed to achieve the goal of creating a self-sustaining irrigated economy in the West after thirty years of trying. 5

With the utmost respect for Hays, Pisani argues persuasively that the proper way to study conservation policy is as an "interaction of national and local institutions." 6 He incorporates a chapter on local irrigation projects in Idaho in his account, the first historian of national Reclamation to accord that...


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