Lawyer Laird Lucas on how and why he fights for the West

  • Laird Lucas in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.

    Advocates for the West
  • The greater sage grouse, a species that Advocates for the West tries to protect.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

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HCN Do you think there's validity to the argument that we have too much environmental litigation, and it's not always helpful?

LUCAS What people think is a lot of litigation is really not much (litigation). We turn down cases all the time from groups and individuals who need legal help because the federal land-management agencies are not following the laws. It's chronic. The agencies are doing what industry wants and not what's good for the land. So enforcing the law, I think, is an appropriate and necessary role. If the government did its job, they wouldn't need us.

HCN You must have learned important lessons about the federal agencies you oppose in court, such as the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service.

LUCAS I've seen two basic traits. One is the agencies have a very close relationship with industries they are working with. They deal with each other every day, and the agencies are not used to dealing with the environmental groups at the same level. So you tend to see pro-industry decisions coming out, and that has been true irrespective of the political administration. The second lesson is it takes the public weighing in to force agencies to change, and lawsuits become the tip of the spear on that. We've seen timber harvests come down from truly unsustainable levels during the Reagan years, because of all the litigation over logging and roadless areas. We're coming to a place where we have managed forests that provide a supply of timber, and we have wild places that won't be put on the chopping block. That took two or three decades of concerted legal, scientific, political, and media actions by the conservation community.

HCN This must be a high-stress job, right? How do you temporarily escape the pressure?

LUCAS You've got judges who hold your fate in their hands. You do the best you can to persuade them, but sometimes you don't, and that's stressful. The flip side is, if you can work on the things you have a passion for, you're really lucky in life. I don't have too many temporary escapes. A walk or a bike ride are the major things I do, and being with my family and getting into the outdoors -- traveling, seeing the American West. But unfortunately, I don't get to do it nearly as much as I'd like.

HCN If you could change any one thing about our legal system, what would it be?

LUCAS The politicization of the judiciary is of great concern. It's at the point where you can almost determine how a case is going to be decided by the judge who gets assigned to it, and that's not right. It's really hard to find judges who will just call it as they see it, and not bring a strong ideological perspective to their judging.

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