A new way of life in the American West

Introducing The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West, revised and updated, by Charles Wilkinson (Boulder: Johnson Books, 1999).

WilkinsonDuring this winter’s bicycle travels in the Desert Southwest, my contemplations are being shaped by two books, both of which explore the same topic: finding new ways to live in the western regions of the United States. The challenge facing the nation, and especially those of us living in the West, can be summarized briefly.

  • Despite its vast size and wealth of natural resources, this part of the continent is fragile and easily degraded.
  • Long-standing policies and practices have exploited the natural wealth of the region and degraded the landscape and its fragile balance of flora, fauna, and waterways.
  • The human population already exceeds some estimates as to the maximum capabilities that this region can support; and the manufactured infrastructure, especially the harnessing of waterways and irrigation of fields, seems irreversible.
  • People continue to migrate to this part of the country and the environmental pressure continues to build.

So what do we do? The two books traveling with me as I bicycle in the desert provide differing, though compatible, answers to this question.

The longer and more complex—Stitching the West Back Together: Conservation of Working Landscapes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014)—is a collection of essays that were prepared for a working conference of twenty ranchers, environmental activists, and conservation biologists whose purpose was to find a way to set aside old differences and craft a new vision for the West.

I came across this volume a year ago in a splendid little bookstore in Bisbee, Arizona, but have pushed it aside because other work seemed more pressing. Now that I am returning to the Southwest for my annual winter visitation, it is time to read the book.

The foreword is written by Charles F. Wilkinson, a name I did not recognize when I bought the book. In late September, however, I took a brief break from normal duties by driving through the Columbia River Gorge, another part of the West where the challenges are especially evident. In the bookstore of the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center and Museum in The Dalles, Oregon, I bought a copy of the revised and updated edition of a book of essays written by Wilkinson: The Eagle Bird: Mapping a New West).

The book jacket identifies the author as “the Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado in Boulder [and] author of several books including Crossing the Next Meridian and Fire on the Plateau.”

After graduating from law school in 1966, Wilkinson practiced with private firms in Phoenix and San Francisco and then served as staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder. In 1975 he became a member of the law faculty at the University of Oregon and later moved to his current position at the University of Colorado.

The first edition of The Eagle Bird was published in 1991. Wilkinson’s goal was to discuss critical western issues in a way that would be accessible to laypeople who might not have the background in western history and the law to avail themselves of the technical literature that was available.

When he revised the book a decade later, he was surprised to realize how much these issues had changed in such a short period of time. I suspect that changes have continued during the decade and a half since this revision was published. Wilkinson’s current point of view can be inferred from a paragraph in his forward to Stitching the West Back Together, which was published in 2014.

“The heart of this fresh and ambitious book is that when you talk long enough and listen enough, and dare to open up your mind enough, you realize that most people and sides are making ethical and moral arguments that deserve high respect. Yes: achieving a vibrant community economic footing is a worthy—and moral—objective. Likewise, embedding communities in healthy, lasting landscapes is a moral imperative” (p. ix).

Later in the foreword, he notes that ideas about life in the West “need to be lived, not just asserted. Employing them must be practical and workable.”

Wilkinson’s essays in The Eagle Bird are valuable to westerners for several reasons. He is thoroughly acquainted with legislation and court cases that deal with the issues of life in western United States. He is also well acquainted with a large body of literature discussing conservationist and environmental issues. Much of his work has been with and on behalf of Native American communities in the West. He is a lucid writer and, has published many articles and fourteen books (according to the bibliographical sketch in Stitching).

Perhaps most important is the fact that I generally agree with his point of view. This is the primary reason for taking this book with me as as I bike and blog my way through the Desert Southwest this winter. Charles Wilkinson will help me understand what I see going on all around me.

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