If you're going to study law in the American West, you have to understand all of the parts that make it up - not just water and mineral rights, but also religion and culture. At least, that's what Charles Wilkinson believes. He's a longtime law professor who's worked for the government on a wide range of assignments, negotiating treaties with Native American tribes and establishing national monuments.
He paced in front of my Foundations in American Natural Resources Law class yesterday, six-foot-three and wiry, sporting well-worn cowboy boots, warning his law students that if they're just looking to study cases, this isn't the class for them.
Instead, he said, we'll get history and a chronological recounting of how the resources in the west were divvied up as well as the rise of the early conservation movement. We'll read Wallace Stegner's Beyond The Hundredth Meridian and Aldo Leopold's A Sand County Almanac. In short - not your traditional law class.
And then he broke down the various elements that have to be considered if you're going to have a discussion about natural resource law in the American West, specifically on the Colorado Plateau - an area that encompasses large parts of Utah and Arizona, big chunks of Colorado and New Mexico and the Grand Canyon, among other major national monuments, forests and parks. Some of the elements he mentioned play a much larger role, but they all have to be taken into account.
1) Aridity - west of the 100th meridian, we get less than 20 inches of rainfall a year, which means that farmers rely heavily on irrigation and reservoirs. It's the main reason for the establishment of western water law.
2) Public lands - nationwide, the federal government owns about 25 percent of the land. In the intermountain west, that number goes up to 50 percent. And on the Colorado Plateau - two-thirds of that land belongs to the federal government. That's a lot of land to manage.
3) Range land - grazing land, for which the Colorado Plateau is not well-suited, as it causes a lot of damage, although that hasn't stopped ranchers.
4) Timber land - forest land is not abundant in this area and logging here has come way down in recent years but it's still a disputed resource.
5) Minerals - this includes hard rock minerals, like gold, and energy fuels, like coal and uranium.
6) Big build-up - following World War II, there was a huge rush on the west. The population quintupled and what city leaders wanted most for growth were water and energy. Big infrastructure projects got underway - the Glen Canyon Dam, Hoover Dam - and mining for coal and uranium took off. All this at a time when there was no regulations governing clean water or air.
7) Parks and monuments - those particularly breathtaking spots: the Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon, Arches National Park...
8) Wilderness - protected areas, which preserve a natural resource that's not much discussed: the beauty of the land, as untouched and as wild as possible.
9) Mormons - they were the first whites to settle many parts of the Colorado Plateau, giving them a strong interest in ownership of the land and a tremendous amount of power in deciding what's to be done with it.
10) Indian tribes - they, too, have a strong interest in how the land is used and many have a central belief that the earth is a living conscious being to be treated with respect and care.
In short, there are a lot of interests here and a lot of resources that many people and industries would like to control. It will be interesting to see what's been done historically, as well as try to understand and anticipate what we might see going forward.