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LAW CENTER SCORES ANOTHER WIN AS IT MARKS A DECADE OF ACTIVISM.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

Chalk up another victory for the Western Environmental Law Center:

A Portland judge decided Wednesday to issue a permanent injunction against logging 574 acres of old growth trees in the Willamette and Mount Hood national forests to protect red tree voles, the primary food source of the threatened northern spotted owl.

The case is just one of dozens that the nonprofit law firm in Eugene has taken on in its watchdog vigil to ensure that federal agencies and private industries follow environmental laws.

The vigil has lasted 10 years - and the law center celebrates its anniversary today, remembering its controversial origins as an upstart University of Oregon program that caused a political ruckus and drew plenty of national attention.

Housed in two craftsman-style bungalows in downtown Eugene, the law center's low-key setting belies the impact it has had on landmark battles from Eugene's Toxics Right to Know law to its efforts against water-polluting factory dairies to its nationally known fight to protect stands of old growth trees throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Get one of the center's lawyers talking, and you'll get an earful: thousands of fish dead because of a pesticide spill in an irrigation ditch, 500-year-old trees at risk of being cut with no public input into the decision, Gunnison sage grouse disappearing from the Colorado landscape.

They may be wearing plaid shirts and jeans and going barefoot in the office - as lawyer Charlie Tebbutt was one recent morning - but they're passionate about the work.

"We're not fighting to enforce the laws," Tebbutt said, "We're fighting to save them."

The law center began as a student clinic created in 1976 by the UO School of Law to give students exposure to the relatively new realm of environmental law - an outgrowth of the landmark congressional Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

The clinic's early successes put it on the national map. Its suit stopped aerial spraying of pesticides by the National Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, said UO law professor Mike Axline, who became one of the clinic's two directors in 1982.

But the clinic was best known for its suits to stop old-growth logging to protect the preferred habitat of the northern spotted owl, a threatened species. The litigation was partially responsible for the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan, which drastically limited logging on federal lands in the Pacific Northwest.

But those courtroom successes came at a price, angering timber industry and state legislators concerned about the economic impacts of reduced logging in Oregon.

For most of the 1980s and early '90s, university presidents and law school deans fielded a steady stream of complaints about the clinic, perceived to be using tax dollars to push a partisan agenda. Mill owners threatened to cut donations. Legislators tried to limit the scope of the clinic's work.

The UO clinic wasn't alone in these struggles, said Bob Kuehn, a University of Alabama law school professor who has written about criticism and attacks that professors and students face when they take on controversial cases.

What's unique in Oregon was that in 1993, after a decade of pressure, the clinic directors - Axline and law professor John Bonine - opted to take it off campus.

The clinic became the Western Environmental Law Center: a private nonprofit law firm that still worked with students, allowing them to gain valuable on-the-job skills, but quieted critics because it no longer was affiliated with the UO.

Since then, the center has grown from two professors to 10 attorneys and eight staff members with offices in three states and a docket of dozens of cases that span the western United States.

The irony is obvious to Kuehn, who says about 30 universities currently host such law clinics.

"This lesson of `Be careful what you wish for' is something that was lost on the critics of the clinic," he said. "Law schools have a moderating influence on the clinics, the kind of cases they undertake and limiting the resources that are likely available to them."

Freed from those limitations, the Western Environmental Law Center sought and received considerable support from charitable foundations and private donors concerned about the environment.

A decade later, it enjoys a reputation as one of the top public interest environmental law firms in the country, Kuehn said.

Some critics say the center uses procedural technicalities to create policy and push for social change.

And the result of the center's work can be especially tough on people working in the timber industry, said Chris West, director of the American Forest Resources Council. His group faced off against the law center over the Willamette and Mount Hood old-growth acreage in dispute in federal court this week.

"It's not that the environment is at risk, but if they want to obstruct or halt something, they use that procedural opportunity to do that, and they're good at it," West said.

That injunction will especially hurt the Cottage Grove company that held the contract to cut trees in the Willamette, West said.

However it's viewed, it's clear the law center is having an impact throughout the West. Its cases have limited post-fire salvage logging, stopped construction of a Wal-Mart superstore, reintroduced wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and protected woodland caribou in Washington.

When the Forest Service releases its draft environmental impact statement next week on salvage logging in the Biscuit Fire, where 500,000 acres burned in Southwestern Oregon last year, attorneys from the law center will be on hand advising clients how best to respond.

"Some of it is difficult, gut-wrenching litigation, and they're up against the best lawyers in the country," said Art Johnson, a Eugene attorney familiar with the center's work.

The center takes on cases that don't necessarily interest bigger, better-known law firms, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"The bigger firms tend to get engaged in huge, never-ending cases like the Columbia dam," Stahl said.

The law center is representing his organization in a suit that challenges the government's approach to firefighting.

Despite a busy docket - currently about 45 active cases - the center hasn't lost sight of its initial mission to educate. About 25 students work on cases at the clinic every year, Axline said.

While Kuehn, the Alabama professor, thinks students might get short shrift from lawyers more focused on clients than the classroom, Axline thinks the opposite is true.

"There are more attorneys available to give feedback to students who are getting practical experience," he said. "The center is able to pursue more cases than the clinic could ever have dreamed of. It enhanced both the academic experience of the students and the ability to deliver legal services to public interest groups."

LAW CENTER HISTORY

1976: Environmental Law Clinic established at the University of Oregon School of Law to give students experience in a new field

1981: Successful suit blocking logging on national forests in Idaho prompts outcry from timber interests in Oregon. One mill owner threatens to withhold a $250,000 donation to the school

1988: Continued success blocking logging to protect northern spotted owl habitat prompts more complaints and review of the clinic's role on campus by a panel of community members. Panel gives the clinic a vote of confidence

1991: Salem legislators draft a proposal that would bar the clinic from participating in court appeals of timber sales; it fails

1993: Clinic moves off campus and incorporates as the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, funded by foundation grants and private donations

1994: Opens office in Taos, N.M.

2000: Opens office in Ketchum, Idaho

A DECADE OF WORK IN THE WEST

The public interest law firm represents grass-roots groups working on water, air and land-use issues. A sampling of its successful suits:

Montana: Blocked expansion of cyanide heap leach gold mining operation that pollutes the water of Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

Utah: Required the Federal Aviation Administration to consider the cumulative noise impact on Zion National Park of an airport expansion in nearby St. George

New Mexico: Blocked expansion of a nuclear weapons simulation facility at Los Alamos

Idaho: Required the National Forest Service to consider impacts to grizzly bears when amending forest plans for the Idaho Panhandle and Kootenai national forests

Washington: Required large factory dairies to comply with clean water regulations in the Yakima area

Oregon: Required irrigation districts using pesticides to kill weeds in irrigation ditches to obtain permits before applying potentially toxic chemicals

California: Blocked an effort to export Northern California river water to Southern California

Arizona: Required the National Forest Service to consider impacts of management decisions on 57 rivers eligible for National Wild and Scenic Rivers designation

Alaska: Forced a Ketchikan pulp mill to comply with Clean Water Act regulations

CAPTION(S):

Western Environmental Law Center attorneys include Dave Bahr, Charlie Tebbutt, Andrea Rodgers and Amy Atwood (with her dog, Gus). INSIDE Logging decision: A federal judge will block logging on six old growth timber sales in the Willamette and Mount Hood national forests / D3
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Title Annotation:The former UO clinic has evolved into a forceful watchdog that speaks up for spotted owls, sage grouse and caribou; Environment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Nov 13, 2003
Words:1515
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