The West Was Won - Will It Be Preserved?

THE future of the American West is more closely connected to the region's early history than ever before. Settlers in the 19th and early 20th century came to exploit the area's rich natural resources, and the way those resources are dealt with in coming decades will be the major challenge for those settlers' descendants and for the newcomers who continue to arrive.

In "Crossing the Next Meridian," Charles F. Wilkinson, a professor of law at the University of Colorado, focuses on the laws and practices that have evolved over the past century and a half in five key areas: mining, timber, grazing, dams and other development along the rivers of the Pacific Northwest, and the storage and diversion of water throughout the rest of the West.

All of these, he writes, continue to be dominated by "the lords of yesterday," which are not individuals but outmoded laws, policies, and ideas. "In field after field," he finds, "the controlling legal rules, usually coupled with extravagant subsidies, simply do not square with the economic trends, scientific knowledge, and social values in the modern West."

The thread of failure in each case goes back to the Jeffersonian ideal that westward expansion should be to the benefit of hard-working individuals and families. The reality instead has been special-interest manipulation in which "water developers, railroads and their landholding companies, timber companies, corporate ranches, agribusiness, and multinational mining companies took control of the economy of the West."

The essence of each of these evolving stories is familiar: the ease with which miners gain title to public land and extract minerals without paying royalties; the decimation of old-growth forests; the dams that have wiped out fisheries; the low fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on federal land; the enormously wasteful irrigation practices across the West.

The strength and uniqueness of Wilkinson's book is that he draws together law, history, and years of experience outside the classroom and in the environment where this continues to take place. He knows well those who have benefited from the archaic laws and policies, those who administer them, and those who have lost out as a result (including, most especially, native American and Hispanic communities). He is an extraordinary writer, able to tell the human stories that make up both history and law.

Some progress has been made in changing the "lords of yesterday," especially since the passage of landmark federal environmental laws in the 1970s. The Bush administration blocked completion of the Two Forks dam in Colorado, on the ground that it would wreak excessive environmental destruction. Signs of reform are appearing in federal agencies like the US Forest Service, which historically has pushed resource extraction over conserving ecosystems. But the real work will have to be done by Westerners them selves.

"Our real choice comes down to this:" Wilkinson concludes. "Western communities can either take charge of the future by adopting some form of conscious management and direction, based on full and brightly etched visions of the future, and sustain the West's lands, waters, and way of life; or western communities can continue to abdicate - by allowing developers to charge ahead with few restraints - and surrender the distinctive qualities of the West within a very few decades."

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