July 24, 2023
Since his passing on June 6, 2023, the WRA community has been mourning the loss and celebrating the legacy of Charles Wilkinson – a titan of the American West.
After beginning his career in law practice, Charles continued a legendary career as a teacher, author, and staunch advocate for the environment and Indigenous communities in the West.
He spent much of his professional career across the street from WRA’s Boulder office at the University of Colorado School of Law where he became a Moses Lasky Professor of Law Emeritus and Distinguished Professor and where he positively impacted the lives and career trajectories of thousands of students, including members of the staff and board of directors of WRA.
Charles’ professional legacy lives on through the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado School of Law, which has paid tribute to him in this “in memoriam” statement.
As a tribute to Charles, and to celebrate his lasting positive impact, we’ve collected some personal reflections from some of those amongst the WRA ranks who had the privilege to learn from and work with him over the years. Those who knew Charles have offered that he’d have appreciated this form of remembrance to honor him, and we hope you do too.
From Mike Gheleta, a WRA Senior Attorney, Healthy Rivers:
I had the good fortune to arrive as a student at the CU Law School just before Charles joined the faculty there. Indeed, I was in the very first cohort of Charles’ legendary Advanced Natural Resources seminar in 1987, which continues today under other law faculty. His groundbreaking seminar focused on experiential learning – examining the natural resources, cultural and social issues in a specific river basin of the West (we think John Wesley Powell would have approved).
My class was focused on the upper Rio Grande Basin, and I was fortunate enough to be part of the carpool that included a talkative Charles on the obligatory educational field trip over spring break. He arranged for a variety of site visits and meetings with an acequia ditch tender, an NPS ranger at Bandelier National Monument, the author of the required class book reading, The Milagro Beanfield War, and a prominent river conservationist at the overlook of Abiquiu Dam on the Rio Chama. The trip was capped with a lively dinner in Santa Fe, at a restaurant that Charles loudly proclaimed had “the best chile relleno in North America.”
That seminar kicked off a student-teacher and then professional relationship between myself and Charles that continued over 35 years. One of the highlights of my career with the U.S. Department of Justice was defending in federal court multiple challenges to President Clinton’s 1996 establishment of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah. One of the strongest pieces of evidence in the case was the formal Presidential Proclamation – researched and written by Charles who had been hired as a Special Assistant in the Interior Department for that very purpose. I recall the Proclamation being perfect – it eloquently described the historic and scientific features of the monument area, justified the monument’s expansive size to protect the interconnected landscape, and checked all the legal boxes necessary for the court to summarily uphold the President’s exercise of executive discretion under the Antiquities Act.
In later years, as Chair of the Advisory Board of CU Law’s Natural Resources Law Center, I greatly enjoyed working with Charles to rebrand the Center as the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment, recognizing the invaluable contributions to the law school’s natural resources program of Charles and his close friend and partner David Getches. Looking back and ahead, I’ll continue to remember Charles as one of the great teachers, mentors and friends in my professional career and in life.
From Bart Miller, WRA’s Healthy Rivers Director:
Professor Charles Wilkinson was nothing short of a hero. He dedicated his prodigious talent, energy, and heart to make the West a better place.
Though Charles is gone, his legacy lives in the thousands of students he entertained and challenged over decades of teaching. He made a point to move past the boundary of the classroom to take courses in the field, to see the impact of management (and lack thereof) in specific places on-the-ground. Many found his law school courses not just interesting, but life-changing. A long roster of them went on to spend their life’s work building on Charles’ legacy in the spheres of Native American law, water law, public land management, and western history.
Charles also lives on through his many books, articles, and speeches, all of which display his skill as a scholar and storyteller on a wide range of topics. Whatever he was writing about, he included important facts and events, but had a strong focus on the people and communities of the West and their connections to the natural world.
Charles was a leader. He spent countless hours brainstorming solutions to our most challenging problems, and taking action with and through people who could make a difference and shape the future.
And, perhaps most importantly, Charles was a listener. He knew that wisdom comes from understanding the views of others. In one of my favorite law school classes – Conservation Philosophy and the Law – Charles brought together law students and masters students in philosophy. He conducted the course like a maestro: he set out an intriguing reading list and, in class, wound us up around a few thought-provoking questions, and then released the class to run with a broad-ranging debate.
I deeply miss Charles and feel privileged to have known him.
From Eli Feldman, Chair of the WRA Board of Directors:
I recently spoke with Lolita Buckner Inniss, Dean of the University Colorado School of Law, about the critical role that natural resources law has played at the law school over the years. I quickly realized I was telling a very personal story about how Charles changed my life.
I recounted how I came to CU Law from Stony Brook, NY, a foreigner to the West. I grew up on the ocean. I knew next to nothing of livestock, water rights and public lands.
Twenty years later, I found myself running one of the largest cattle ranches in Colorado. Ditch priorities and weaning weights were now common topics at the dinner table. I ended up on the boards of Western Resource Advocates and the GWC—pushing policies to protect and sustain the West. My life revolved around the mountains, rivers, plants and animals of the West.
I told Dean Inniss that there were two reasons this young man from Long Island was converted into a westerner. They were Charles Wilkinson and Charles’ close friend and fellow titan of the West—David Getches. I would not be who I am, doing what I do, had I not fallen under their spell.
Charles was there, listening intently. So was Ann Getches—David’s widow. It was a chance to tell them exactly what I felt. Gratitude. And responsibility to cultivate their inspiration; to find purpose in doing well for others; to give love and tears and every damn thing we’ve got to make this world a better place. This is the legacy of the great Charles Wilkinson.
From Jamie Starr, Member of the WRA Board of Directors:
As a professor, Charles’ teaching style transcended the text book (which wasn’t too shabby either—he wrote it after all), and focused on the lived experiences of stakeholders and communities throughout the West. During our natural resources law seminar – a week-long field trip to various key locations on the Colorado Plateau in the spring of 2006 – conversations had on the range, at the dam, in the tribal headquarters, on the rim of the Grand Canyon, within slot canyons, and around the campfire were instructive, thought-provoking, formative, and contextually spot-on. Because for Charles, only through being there, and engaging with people on the ground, would we students ever begin to grasp the complexity of the West, and be prepared as future advocates. I forged life-long friendships with fellow classmates during that week; that was pretty special, too.
Charles’ way of educating and earnest, heartfelt, and utterly contagious spirit not only salvaged my law school experience and solidified my fledgling love for the West, but it reinforced important lessons in communication, consensus building, and advocacy that have been invaluable for me in life since—mentorship at its finest.
Surely Charles’ indelible impact had something to do with my returning to WRA to serve on the Board in 2019—fifteen years after I’d interned with WRA during law school, and despite my career transition away from the practice of law and into the outdoor industry. Surely Charles has had a similar impact on countless other students over the many decades. And surely we’ll all proudly carry his legacy forward in our own ways.