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Know the West

'His courtroom was a classroom'


"The end of an era" is how Mark Rutzick, attorney for the timber industry, describes the passing of Judge William L. Dwyer, who died Feb. 12 at 72 from complications associated with cancer and Parkinson's disease. Although the sentiment is perhaps wishful thinking on the part of Rutzick, who lost virtually every case he brought before Dwyer, there's no disputing the influence Dwyer had on public land policy.

Dwyer served for 15 years as Senior U.S. District Court Judge in the state of Washington. Judge Dwyer's signature accomplishment on the bench was the 1991 spotted owl ruling that led to the Northwest Forest Plan, which protected 8 million acres of Pacific Northwest ancient forest. His opinion, printed contemporaneously on the Washington Post's editorial page, was not the dry legal prose we expect from judges, but a thoughtful and persuasive justification for saving old-growth forests.

In its conclusion, Dwyer said, "The argument that the mightiest economy on earth cannot afford to preserve old-growth forests for a short time, while it reaches an overdue decision on how to manage them, is not convincing today. It would be even less so a year or a century from now."

The durability and prescience of Dwyer's ruling is even more impressive a decade later. Dwyer's predictions of dramatic changes in the timber industry that would minimize the economic consequences of old-growth forest protection have all come true. Private lands did increase production to offset public logging declines, and raw log exports plummeted by two-thirds in the years following his decision. He recognized that the spotted owl issue was emblematic of the Pacific Northwest's economic and social transformation from a resource-extraction economy to one based on information technology and services. No doubt his ruling was the blueprint for President Clinton's famous Forest Summit in Portland a year later.

Dwyer was "a lawyer's lawyer and a judge's judge," according to Earthjustice's Todd True, one of the attorneys for environmental groups in the spotted owl case. His courtroom was a classroom for newly appointed judges wishing to learn from the best how the law works in practice. No matter whether you won or lost before him, his intelligence, diligence and charm made for a memorable experience. Dwyer's joint nomination to the bench by liberal Democrat Dan Evans and conservative Republican Slade Gorton (surely one of the few matters on which they agreed) showed the esteem in which he was held. The durability of his spotted owl ruling is due, in no small part, to his character, as well as to his legal reasoning.

Although I spent many hours in his courtroom and submitted scores of expert affidavits for his consideration, I never once exchanged even a pleasantry with Judge Dwyer. Nevertheless, years later he always answered personally the brief correspondences I would send, including references to his spotted owl decision. I feel privileged to have known the man, if only in this small way.

He is survived by his wife of nearly 50 years, Vasiliki; three children, Joanna Tiffany, Tony Dwyer and Charlie Dwyer; and five grandchildren.

Andy Stahl is the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and worked as a forester for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now known as Earthjustice) from 1987 through 1994.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Andy Stahl