Profile: Bethany Cotton, Center for Biological Diversity

  • Bethany Cotton

    Kris Connor

A crowd of several dozen lawyers met in a recent D.C. federal court hearing to consider the question: Should the government limit carbon emissions to slow climate change and save sea-ice habitat for polar bears? Some represented the Obama administration, while others were there on behalf of Alaska's government, the oil industry or environmental groups. And some simply came to observe: The case has huge implications.

Bethany Cotton, a 30-year-old vegan just three years out of law school, working as a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, acted as a paralegal for the environmentalists. She sums up her motivation: "I have a lot of respect for wild spaces and the inherent rights of other species."

She grew up near Ashland, Ore., living in a cabin on 1,680 acres of forest, where her grandparents once logged using horses and her father later ran nature education programs. She loved roaming the outdoors, and at the age of 12, she appeared in her first hearing to testify against a proposal for a gravel mine on a nearby mountainside. "Growing up on the land, I've always had a conservation ethic," she says. "In the seventh grade, I knew I wanted to be an environmental lawyer."

She earned a bachelor's in environmental studies and then a law degree at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, and had jobs dealing with city water issues and in a nonprofit bike shop that repaired second-hand bikes and gave them to poor people. She wanted to stay in the West, but the economic recession limited her career opportunities. With about $80,000 in college loans to pay off, she feels lucky to have landed the D.C. job.

The Center has only two D.C. staffers, so she subleases a back room in the offices of a private lawfirm that handles public-interest cases. She argues lawsuits or writes comments about government plans, trying to help the West Virginia northern flying squirrel, the Peirson's milk vetch (a California desert plant in off-road driving territory), Nebraska's Salt Creek tiger beetle and the Delmarva Peninsula fox squirrel (Delaware and Maryland), which, like the polar bear, is threatened by climate change. The combination of science and law presents "a very steep learning curve," she says.

She feels out of place in D.C. "People are more intense here -- it's very work-centric, very dense," she says. She doesn't have a car and lives in a tiny studio apartment where she grows basil on the windowsill. (There's a two-year wait for community garden space in D.C.) "I miss having a dog and a garden and miss hiking." Sometimes she rides her bike on metro-area trails, but they tend to be crowded, and she thinks pedaling in city traffic is a good way to get run over. "I spend a lot of time alone because I don't know a lot of people and I work a lot. It's OK -- I have my library card."

She maintains her Western roots, returning to Oregon to visit her father, go snowshoeing, attend the annual environmental law conference at the University of Oregon and do pro bono legal work for Friends of Living Oregon Waters on issues like liquefied natural gas ports and wind-power developments. She also visits Arizona, where the Center has its headquarters, for staff retreats. "I'm really proud of the work I do and the organization I work for," she says, but, "I definitely don't want to live here forever."

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