The Faces Behind the Lawsuits

  • Johanna Wald

  • Joe Feller

  • Laird Lucas

  • Letty Belin

  • Mike Axline

  • Jay Tutchton

  • Roger Flynn

  • Tom France


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Shooting Spree."


Johanna Wald

Natural Resources Defense Council, branch in San Francisco


  • Law degree from Yale University, 1967
  • Helped open the first NRDC office in California in 1972, and quickly became the leader in BLM issues, pioneering cases on grazing, coal mining and wilderness
  • One lawsuit victory in the early ’70s forced the BLM to do more than 100 environmental impact statements on grazing around the West
  • Her landmark lawsuits ended the BLM’s practice of automatically renewing grazing leases, forced the BLM to consider environmental impacts when leasing federal coal, and prevented Interior Secretary James Watt from dropping all wilderness study areas smaller than 5,000 acres


"I have never seen the kind of assault on the environment that we are experiencing now. It is broad. It is deep. It is comprehensive. And it is relentless. ... Some cases I’ve won, I’m still having to think about 30 years later (as the same issues come up again)."


‘Love of place’

Joe Feller

Arizona State University law professor


  • Law degree from Harvard, 1984, and Ph.D. in physics
  • A leader on grazing issues, beginning with his work in the Comb Wash area in Utah in 1988; won landmark rulings that the BLM must analyze impacts and consider whether grazing is appropriate; now fighting the rollbacks of grazing regulations
  • Hikes the ground to get to know it intimately, and takes photos of the grazing impacts to make effective presentations in court


"I first grew concerned on a hike in Arch Canyon in 1988. As soon as I walked into the canyon, I said, ‘Boy, something is wrong here.’ All the vegetation was mowed down, it looked like a disaster. I was so inexperienced, at first I thought it was (the aftermath of) a fire. Then I realized it was overgrazing. I decided to make it a research project, started writing letters and asking questions, and I just became so angry, I started to raise objections. My cases always grow out of a love of a place."


‘Pay cut’

Laird Lucas

Advocates for the West, in Boise


  • Law degree from Yale University, 1986
  • Ran the Boise branch of Land and Water Fund of the Rockies from 1993 to 2002, then founded Advocates for the West
  • Lawsuit victories include stopping farm interests from taking the name of the Committee for Idaho’s High Desert environmental group, a masquerade an appeals court called "green-scamming"
  • Other landmark lawsuits include stopping Auger Falls Dam on the Snake River, winning water for the Rio Grande’s silvery minnow, and forcing the BLM to get tougher on overgrazing in the Owyhee region


"I came out of law school with huge debts, and had to pay it off, so I put in seven years in private practice in San Francisco, representing corporations and wealthy individuals, white-collar defense and securities fraud. I had to look deep within myself and ask, ‘Is this the kind of law I want to practice?’ I took a 60 percent pay cut moving to Boise to do environmental law. I want to work on something I really believe in."


Letty Belin

Private practice in Santa Fe


  • Law degree from Stanford, 1977
  • Stints in New Mexico’s attorney general’s office, several public-interest groups and private firms; also represents tribes
  • Specialty is water, with many victories, including some for Rio Grande’s silvery minnow; she’s challenged much of the state’s river plumbing (though a congressional rider overruled a key minnow victory)
  • Lawsuits currently against New Mexico’s relaxation of water-quality standards, against huge salvage logging around Arizona’s Rodeo-Chediski fire, and defending New Mexico’s renewable energy program from an industry challenge


"It’s disturbing to see how much money gets poured into what you could call the anti-environmental side, vs. how little money is available for people who are pursuing the public’s interest. I think, for example, of one relatively minor hearing in the silvery minnow litigation: I was (alone) representing six environmental groups, and there were 18 lawyers on the other side. Five different parties, at least 18 lawyers — for the city of Albuquerque, the state, the federal agencies, the irrigators — and there was me. That imbalance is so striking, in every case I work on. It just doesn’t seem right."


‘Somebody’s got to lose’

Mike Axline

Private practice in Sacramento


  • Law degree from University of Oregon, 1980
  • Got more than 600 law students involved in the university’s environmental law clinic, which he helped run from 1982 to 2001
  • Landmark lawsuit victories on logging, spotted owls, mining pollution and reclamation, and aerial pesticide spraying
  • Lawsuits also established the legal principle that a federal agency must evaluate cumulative impacts of any series of actions, rather than just the specific impacts of each action
  • Now doing "toxic torts," suing major chemical and oil companies over massive drinking-water contamination by compounds such as MTBE and rocket fuel, cases based not on environmental laws, but on bullet-proof "common law ... the rules of reasonable conduct in a civilized society," established by centuries of court rulings


"You’ve got to be willing to lose. That’s why 99 percent of attorneys are not litigators; they settle cases, they try to compromise, they are not willing to get to the point where somebody’s got to win and somebody’s got to lose."


‘Sense of urgency’

Jay Tutchton

Environmental law clinic at the University of Denver


  • Law degree from University of California-Los Angeles, 1980
  • Has run the clinic for about eight years
  • Lawsuits stopped bad mines and overgrazing, but his specialty is endangered species
  • Fires off species lawsuits like shotgun blasts; one case alone forced evaluation of 43 plant species and a lizard in California, and led to about 35 species being listed as endangered or threatened
  • Stands up for obscure species like the skinny moonwort, bladder pods, Preble’s meadow jumping mouse, Puerto Rico rock frog, and the desert yellowhead (a plant that lives only on a 350-acre patch of Wyoming)


"We have a greater sense of urgency, and need. It’s a true clinic; these (species) don’t have anywhere else to go, and a law student representing them is better than nothing. The government’s behavior is up-front denial of the biodiversity crisis. We have a case where only two plants (of a species) are known to exist, and the government argued that critical habitat designation was not necessary."



Roger Flynn

Western Mining Action Project, in Boulder, Colo.


  • Law degree from University of Colorado, 1991, and bachelor’s degree in engineering
  • Founded Western Mining Action Project in 1993
  • Lawsuits and administrative appeals stopped or delayed dozens of mines in the West, including the Oil-Dri kitty litter mine in Nevada and the Crown Jewel gold mine in Washington (that victory got overruled by a congressional rider, but Sen. Slade Gordon took heat for it and was defeated in his re-election attempt)
    "To do environmental law, you have to specialize, because you really have to know your issues. When I started, no one was working on mining. The 1872 Mining Law basically ruled everything. They almost didn’t even do environmental reviews of mines. Now they do these big fat environmental impact statements. It takes longer to get a mine going, because they know if they don’t do the review, we’ll sue them. The public is more aware of bad mining, and the agencies are doing a better job."

    ‘Litigation is debatable’

    Tom France
    National Wildlife Federation, Missoula, Mont., branch

    • Law degree from University of Montana, 1981
    • Has run the National Wildlife Federation’s Northern Rockies branch since the early 1980s
    • Landmark lawsuit victories include forcing the BLM and Forest Service to analyze impacts of oil and gas leasing, which led to the federal law that says the agencies can refuse to lease sensitive land
    • Other lawsuits stopped a hydro dam on the Kootenai River, reduced grazing on wildlife refuges around the West, and enforced Montanans’ constitutional right to a "clean and healthy environment"
    • Shifted over time to local consensus efforts, negotiating with landowners to retire grazing leases in grizzly bear habitat and to improve sage grouse habitat
    "Litigation is a useful tool, but sometimes its effectiveness is debatable. National Wildlife Federation in many instances seeks collaborative solutions, finding ways to provide incentives, to work with the affected parties and agencies, to see if we can forge a conservation solution that avoids litigation. We think those solutions can be more durable, and that they are less polarizing."
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