'We're trying to turn up the heat'

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Laird Lucas graduated from Yale Law School in 1986, worked for a federal judge, and then went into "high-pressure" litigation at a large San Francisco law firm. He has been with the nonprofit Land and Water Fund in Boise, Idaho, for the last six years, representing citizen groups such as Jon Marvel's Idaho Watersheds Project. These days, he says, "I love what I'm doing."

LAIRD LUCAS: "I don't fight every battle for every environmental group. I'm looking for impact. It always helps if our grazing litigation or other cases have the potential to become a model for Idaho and other Western states, too.

"When you win these cases, you can really change the terms of the debate. It's like the saying, "Sometimes you have to turn up the heat for them to see the light." That's what we're trying to do for Jon in Owyhee County. We're trying to turn up the heat so the BLM will do something.

"Jon has done a hell of a good job putting the fear of God in a lot of people, especially ranchers. But he has stepped on toes in the conservation community. Even I haven't always agreed with his tactics. But then, change is never easy.

"The way things stand today, grazing is a privilege and not a right. The courts have upheld that principle in the 9th Circuit and before the Supreme Court. Yet institutionally, grazing is viewed as a fundamental right and the agencies are loath to challenge that.

"When the BLM in 1997 automatically renewed 68 grazing permits in Idaho for 1 million acres, 80 percent were listed as suffering from environmental problems. The last environmental analysis of those Owyhee County permits had been done in 1981.

"That's why we went to federal court and asked the judge to break the logjam. If you keep cows out of riparian areas and springs, you can do a lot to protect many species.

"On the state school lands, all we had to do was use the language of the Idaho Constitution itself, which requires that these lands be managed solely to benefit schools. Cases from other states made it clear it is improper to use school lands to subsidize an industry like public-lands ranching.

"When the Land Board and Legislature fought back by adopting policies and even the 1995 "anti-Marvel" bill to prohibit bidding on state lands, the Idaho Supreme Court showed it can read the language of the constitution. It said the anti-Marvel law was unconstitutional. Even more amazing, it threw out a constitutional amendment designed to protect ranchers from competition. The Idaho Supreme Court hadn't rejected a constitutional amendment since 1929.

"What's the key to winning before conservative Idaho judges? We have to be completely right on the law and merits of the case."