The Eagle Bird

In THE EAGLE BIRD (1992), law professor Charles Wilkinson offers his vision of the West for the twenty-first century. That vision includes the development of an ethic of place—in the West, delineated by river basins and watersheds. Within these configurations, governments (both Native American and U.S. federal), societies, and economic activities would all have their place. Thus the wolf and the rancher, the reservation system, the rural community and the metropolis, and even the developer would share an uneasy coexistence built on sustainable development.

Wilkinson defines sustainable development as the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In economic terms such an approach “internalizes externalities”: water and air pollution, soil erosion, and endangered species which are currently undervalued in the multiple-use equation. The implementation of sustainable development requires the concurrence of both the private and public sectors, with the government assuming the multiple roles of steward, enforcer, and compensator.

Drawing on the Endangered Species Act and the Northwest Power Act, Wilkinson demonstrates the political and economic power of the ethic-of-place paradigm. In these acts, the cooperation of three governments, numerous agencies within the U.S. federal government, and various constituent groups ranging from environmentalists to ranchers to developers has produced regulations that use river basins and other natural boundaries to delineate ecosystems. In order to ensure cooperation during the implementation stage of such programs, Wilkinson argues for an increase in consensus decision-making and a dramatic decrease in litigious activities to resolve conflicts.

THE EAGLE BIRD is a collection of essays written by Wilkinson over the past fifteen years. It reflects his despair but also his optimism concerning human and natural resource use in the West, a region he refers to as the “true soul of the country.”