Law program trains advocates for natural resource use
Portland, Ore. – According to Bob Skinner of Jordan Valley, Ore., Western Resources Legal Center (WRLC) came about because of a passion for defending the agriculture industry.
“I live in country that looks a lot like Wyoming – it’s high desert, and my family homesteaded there, and we have strong roots ranching in southeastern Oregon. I’m the fifth generation, and my grandkids are there now,” says Skinner, a member of the WRLC Board of Directors.
“I’m not an attorney, I’m a rancher, but I’ve been in the courtroom so many times over the years on some pretty tough things,” says Skinner, referring to battles with environmental groups over natural resources. “There’s no integrity coming from the other side, and that’s not where you folks want to be. It’s not where I want to be. It’s like lying against the ropes in a boxing ring and letting them beat on you. They can do whatever they want.”
“Cowboys don’t play offense very well, and that’s a fact. It’s hard to get cowboys to play offense – they play defense when they have to,” he adds.
That’s where WRLC comes into play, and its Executive Director, Caroline Lobdell.
“In brief, we are the nation’s first clinical program advocating for the natural resource industry at the law school level,” says Lobdell. “There are a lot of law schools in this country, and the majority have clinical legal programs, but the majority of those programs are designed to teach law students about regulating natural resource industries.”
“We are the first, and currently the only, program in the country that teaches law students how to advocate for natural resource industries,” explains Lobdell of the program that’s affiliated with Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, Ore. “We are here to train a new generation of legal advocates that appreciates natural resource industries.”
Lewis and Clark Law School graduate and WRLC Chairman Steve Wildish was an integral part of getting the program off the ground and accepted into the law school.
“When I graduated from Lewis and Clark Law School in 1985 the environmental law program was just starting,” explains Wildish. “They were beginning their identity as a school specializing in environmental law.”
Through the years, the law school’s focus as an environmental law program began to build, and Lewis and Clark became recognized as the number one environmental law school in the country, and has remained in the top two for over a decade.
“That concerned a lot of us graduates. The school began to rely heavily on its environmental law reputation, and we began to wonder if we were missing something in the broader spectrum that falls under natural resources law,” says Wildish.
In 2005, that led to a group of alumni gathering together to start talking about a new type of natural resources law program. “In the beginning we thought it would be a law clinic, endorsed and receiving support and resources from the law school, but we found we were fighting a battle for establishment, even though we had people willing to step up,” notes Wildish. “They didn’t want us there. They thought a program focused on a client base of natural resource industries would tarnish their reputation as the number one environmental law program.”
After a year and a half working on the project, the center was established not as a law clinic, but as a separate 501(c)(3) non-profit organization.
“Our curriculum description is a ‘clinical internship seminar,’” says Wildish. “What that means is we get to teach students practical legal skills and have a client base of natural resource users, which includes ranchers and farmers. We also help out the mining and timber industries.”
Lobdell says WRLC was told it wouldn’t get any students, they didn’t exist, and nobody would want to work on the natural resource industry side of things.
“I got a little nervous, because I set a deadline and the day before I didn’t have a single student application,” she says. “Two hours before the deadline I got nearly a dozen applications for the first year, when we could only take three or four students.”
Now WRLC takes 16 applications per semester, from students who want to learn how to advoate on behalf of natural resource users. “That was a huge win for us,” says Lobdell.
WRLC also accepts applications for legal assistance. “We aren’t on the front grounds. If you have a neighbor, or yourself, or know someone who needs legal assistance in these areas, we’d like you to contact us so we can evaluate the case as potential for us and our students to work on,” says Lobdell.
WRLC works on cases that involve the Endangered Species Act, National Environmental Policy Act, administrative permitting processes, administrative comments, U.S. Supreme Court briefs and the sage grouse case in Idaho. They’re also heavily involved in National Forest grazing cases in Oregon, representing multiple cattle organizations and individual ranchers.
“We don’t charge for services, because we’re a non-profit educational organization, so we’re very limited on the cases we can take, but we want to help everyone we can and we’re able to,” says Lobdell.
Wildish says he believes the only way to make a difference is through education. “The most polished representatives of what we do at Western Resources are our students,” he continues. “It’s because of them we can provide balance in education at Lewis and Clark Law School. We’re extremely proud of what we do, and we think we’re making a little difference.”
“When they go out in the world of private practice, you want an attorney working for you that respects your industry and understands you. These kids are coming out with that – they don’t have to figure out you’re not these terrible people because you’re in natural resource industries,” says Wildish of the program’s graduates.
“Our student evaluations are over the top, we get amazing feedback and our students end up getting jobs working for industries like agriculture,” says Lobdell.
“They’ve been playing the game for 50-plus years, and we’ve been at home making a living,” says Skinner of the litigation action by environmental groups. “We need to get with it and start grabbing young people and showing them what we do and that resource use is right, and telling them the other side of the issue. We’re trying to turn some attorneys out to defend our industry, and those attorneys turn into judges and then district judges.”
Lobdell expresses the hope that the University of Wyoming would step forward with a movement toward a natural resource law program, and she says WRLC has talked with Steve Easton, Dean of the UW Law School.