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Eugene Weekly : Feature : 3.3.11

PIELC 2011:

Enviro Law Fest Hundreds of lawyers, scores of activists, one big conference

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Enviro Law Fest

Hundreds of lawyers, scores of activists, one big conference

By Camilla Mortensen

Its the closest thing to what youd get if you crossed a Grateful Dead show with a law conference, according to Bob Irvin, who was one of the first student organizers of the UO School of Laws annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC). This year marks the 29th time volunteer law students have pulled offû øthe worlds most important environmental law conference."û

PIELC 2011 organizers at the UOs Knight Law School
One of PIELCs founders,ûJohn Bonine

This is not hyperbole; PIELCs influence is global. And with a slightly festive air that you dont expect to find when surrounded by hordes of attorneys, PIELC manages to walk a fine line between being one of the worlds most influential gatherings of environmental lawyers working for the public good and being a damn good time.û

PIELC has brought lawyers, activists and other natural resources-oriented people together since its first confab in March 1983. UO law professor John Bonine and then-law prof Michael Axline (now a plaintiffs toxics torts lawyer) began talking with law students in Land Air Water (LAW) ‹ the worlds oldest environmental law student organization, Bonine says ‹ûabout creating a public interest environmental law conference. øIt was obvious that public interest lawyers needed to find each other and our law students needed to find them, and there was no way for that to happen," Bonine says.û

Ask any attendee about PIELC, and youll hear stories of trees that were saved and pollution cleaned up because of contacts forged at the gathering. You may also hear tales of FBI agents lurking in the hallways and government agencies secretly recording presentations (for the record, PIELC records panels with permission of the speakers for those who cant make the conference). What other place in the world would bring together Earth First! and other activists with attorneys and public policy wonks, and use all that power for good?û

PIELC takes place March 3-6 at the UO and features more than 100 panels, hundreds of speakers and more than 2,000 attendees. This years conference is put on, as always, by law students volunteering their scant free time, and it covers topics from dioxin in telephone poles to using online environmental databases to the toxic mining of the Canadian tar sands.û

PIELC has evolved and grown over time, but never lost sight of its goal of keeping øfires burning in lawyers hearts" as Bonine says, and it BRING's those lawyers together with law students and activists. PIELC itself isnt the only thing thats grown: It has spawned other public interest law conferences, as well as groups such as the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide. If you played øsix degrees of separation" with environmental lawsuits, youd find PIELCs influence stretches from the Ecuadorian Amazon to Appalachian America, and from China to the Ukraine.

 

From little acorns €

Irvin, now the senior VP for conservation programs for Defenders of Wildlife, was a law student in 1989 when the conference was conceived. He co-directed the inaugural PIELC, then known as Pacific Northwest Public Interest Law Conference, with fellow law student Jay Manning. øIm like a proud parent having seen my baby grow into a really terrific adult," says Irvin, adding that, øit clearly meets a need that is unfilled by any other conference in the country."

Irvin says øThe conference BRING's together aspiring lawyers, practicing lawyers, activists and policy makers from around the world to talk about the widening number of topics relating to environmental protection in a way in which everyone feels quite equal to one another and promotes a free exchange of ideas and energy that you just cant find at any other conference."

Walking through the halls of the UO law school during PIELC, youre just as apt to have a conversation with a politician or a lawyer as you are to chat up a member of the direct action group Rising Tide or buy a bumper sticker that says, øMy SUV is Killing the Planet."û

Past speakers have included Robert F.û Kennedy Jr., Julia Butterfly Hill, Ralph Nader, Rev. Al Sharpton and Earth First! co-founder Dave Foreman. Sierra Club founder Dave Brower spoke at PIELC every year from 1987 until he died in 2000. Some speakers meet with acclaim, others, like Hill, have met with controversy.

Not only are the law students putting on the event unpaid, Bonine says, but none of the speakers are paid to speak at the conference either, and they often pay for their own travel. øA vast majority are paying to come here instead of the other way around," he says. (Attendees can choose to pay a nominal fee to support the conference, and attorneys pay a fee if they are seeking Continuing Legal Education credits.)

Irvin says that by the present standard the first conference was pretty small, but it exceeded expectations in attendance and in enthusiasm. øA local television station sent a camera crew," he laughs. øWe thought we were big time."

That first conference, he says, had 75-100 attendees. Bonine says that as they planned the event, øWe had no idea how to persuade busy lawyers and other professionals to attend a conference they had never heard of. So we decided that if we wanted someone to attend, we would simply invite him or her as a speaker." According to early brochures, posted on the PIELC website, conferences sometimes kicked off with a keg of beer, øunderground environmental music," and lodging advice consisted of: øParticipants with sleeping bags can be accommodated on floors and couches of LAW (Land Air Water) members."

The first daylong conference, Irvin says, had 15 speakers on a handful of panels.ûAnother 60 people showed up as attendees. By the following year the conference had panels running simultaneously. Bonine says the feedback they received said there were too many panels. So, øIgnoring this advice, the next year we increased the number of panels and the number of conflicts." People complained more; so the organizers continued to ignore the complaints and the conference grew. Bonine says the basic message was, øIf you couldnt attend a panel that you wanted this year, come back next year for more." And they did.û

Bonine says the tradition of inviting environmental groups to set up display tables for their literature and to promote their causes started early on. By 1984, the conference changed its name from øPacific Northwest" to øWestern" Public Interest Law Conference.û

By 1990, the original three-fold pamphlet for the conference had become a full-on brochure and PIELCs influence became more clear.

 

A mighty conference grows

The year 1989 was the first time PIELC went worldwide, with environmental lawyers from other countries invited to speak and participate. Bonine says about a dozen of them chatted over lunch and agreed to try to find money to create the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW).û

Bern Johnson, executive director of ELAW says, øThe language and legal systems were different, the cultures were different but the environmental issues they were challenging were the same in all parts of the world." The settings might vary, Johnson says, but a toxic chemical is the same everywhere. Eugene is home to the U.S. office of ELAW, which has offices all over the world.û

Though ELAW stemmed from PIELC, they are separate entities. Confusion arises because PIELC attendees often shorten øenvironmental law conference" to e-law ‹ also, ELAW rolls off the tongue with more ease than saying PIELC, which sounds a bit like hacking up a hairball. In odd numbered years (except this one) ELAW holds its annual meeting just before PIELC, and its members are often keynoters at the conference. One 2009 PIELC speaker and ELAW partner Pablo Fajardo recently won an $8.6 billionûsuit against oil giant Chevron for oil pollution in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

True to their beginnings, both ELAW and PIELC help public interest attorneys with what Bonine calls øtough work and lonely battles." He says of all the environmental attorneys in the U.S., less than five percent are working in the public interest. And just what is the public interest environmental law? Irvin says its øEnvironmental law practiced for the protection and conservation of all of the things we all depend on for life, protection of ecosystems, protection of wildlife, of the air we breath, the water we drink. Its environmental law practiced for the benefit of society as opposed to the benefit of corporation and banks and resource developers."û

As the focus of the gathering widened, the conference dropped øWestern" from its name in 1990, Bonine says. PIELC didnt actually add øenvironmental" to the moniker until 1993, though the conference had an environment and natural resource focus from the beginning.û

In addition to providing the genesis for ELAW, Bonine says PIELC has spun off other similar conferences. His wife Svitlana Kravchenko, director of the Oregon Masters of Law Graduate Program in Environmental Law, founded the Guta Environmental Law Conferences for Central and Eastern Europe. He says PIELC has also inspired public interest environmental law conferences in London, at Tulane University, at the University of Georgia and the All-Asia Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. û

PIELC, Bonine says, is not just a place to discuss law; it helps øpropel forward a movement for the protection of the environment" and he says it encourages dialogues among groups working for environmental goals who otherwise would not meet.û

For example, he says, in the 1990s some Earth First!ers held a meeting at the conference. At PIELC they came to know people from the labor movement, who were also concerned with unsustainable tree cutting, and who told EF!, øYoure endangering our lives." In May of 1987 a logger was almost killed by a spiked tree, and though most agree it wasnt EF! putting the nail in the tree that almost decapitated sawmill worker George Alexander, the incident had reverberations. After the conversation at PIELC, the Earth First!ers ødecided to change that tactic and become allies with labor instead of disagreeing with them," says Bonine.

 

PIELC today

øWhats unique about this conference," according to Bonine, øis because it was never organized by the law school as an institution, its continuity has to come from with the students own motivations." That, he says, øhas proved stronger than would have been the case if were an institution outside the student body." û

This years PIELC organizers are Galen Carrico, Molly Fales, Emily Follansbee, Whitney Lester, Scott Marcinkus and treasurer Nadia Dahab. In addition to the conference co-directors, more than 100 students volunteer to organize PIELC; thats more than one in five of the law students at the UO.

The UO School of Law is ranked 80th in the country, but the environmental law program is ranked 8th, according to the U.S. News and World Reports annual rankings and PIELC is one of the things that draws high caliber students to the UO.û

The co-directors switch every year, says Follansbee, who came to Oregon for school from the East Coast, and the directors have switched every year since the conferences inception. Planning starts in the summer and Marcinkus says, øYou have to be ready to troubleshoot." The key, the organizers say, to getting the conference together, aside from spending a lot of nights and weekends in the PIELC office in the law school, is to line up all your speakers and keynoters early ‹ and then expect it to change. The organizers use a binder, øWhat we call the PIELC Bible" says Lester, to figure out their planning timeline.

Founding PIELC co-director Bob Irvin says of he and Mannings contributions to PIELCs continuity, øI dont know that we wrote any of the chapters of the Bible but we probably at least started some of the verses of Genesis for it."

Marcinkus, who worked as an environmental scientist before turning to law, says as they put the panels together they try ønot to present just one side of the story." Fales adds that each organizer oversees about 20 panels each. øEvery year is a little different," says Follansbee, øWe try to get multiple viewpoints."

Because of those multiple viewpoints, the conference has had at least one FBI informant show up wearing a wire during the federal øOperation Backfire" investigation into ecosabotage in the Northwest. In 2007 agents from the Bureau of Land Management allegedly used a cell phone camera to record clips of a film shown as a work-in-progress at the conference and showed it to other employees. The BLM later returned the clips when one of the filmmakers threatened a lawsuit. Despite, or because of, these differences the conference continues to thrive.

Just days before PIELCs kickoff, the organizers arent tired of the conference; they just havent slept much. They enthuse over panels on obscure topics like øthe Dwyer Injunction," which, according to co-director Carrico, is a must-see along with wolves in the Northwest and keynoting scientist and writer Carl Safina.û

From bureaucrats to protest marches, PIELC is more than just a conference. Bonine says, øIts the worlds greatest environmental law festival, and its more a festival than a conference." Come see what all the fuss is about, PIELC is not for lawyers only; its for anyone who cares about the environment.û

PIELC is March 3-6 at the UO law school. Go to pielc.org for a program and follow it on Twitter, @PIELCUO hashtag #PIELC