Looking Back Over 100 Years of the National Park Service, Looking Ahead to the Future of Environmental Law

Posted on May 20, 2016 by Benjamin F. Wilson

August 25, 2016 is the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.  The many planned celebrations and observances provide an opportunity for everyone to become reacquainted with these great outdoor spaces and reflect on the world around us.  As your summer plans take shape, be sure to visit FindYourPark.com and try to visit at least one national park.  I invite you to share photos of your travels in the comments section of this post, and perhaps ACOEL can find a place for the collection of images of its members enjoying these national treasures.

As I reflect on the Park Service’s anniversary, I observe that it presents a chance for me – and for all environmental lawyers – to take stock of where we have been as a profession.  Why – and how – we do what we do?  What challenges will the next 100 years hold?

I issue this charge, in part, to carry on the conservation legacy of Henry L. Diamond.  Henry was a founder of my firm, Beveridge & Diamond, and a great environmental lawyer and mentor to many (including myself).  Sadly, we lost Henry earlier this year.

Henry and many others like him paved the way for our generation to be stewards of the planet and the environmental laws that govern our interactions with it.  We have made progress, but new challenges have emerged.  Easy answers, if they ever existed, are fewer and farther between.  So what, then, does the future hold for the next generation of environmental lawyers? 

Future generations of lawyers would do well to focus on the funding mechanisms that are critical but often overlooked components to achieving our most important environmental and sustainability goals.  As an example, we can look to the past.  Early in his career, Henry Diamond assisted the Chairman of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, Laurance Rockefeller, in editing the Commission’s seminal report, Outdoor Recreation for America, that was delivered to President John F. Kennedy in 1962.  Among the Commission’s more significant recommendations was the idea to use revenues from oil and gas leasing to pay for the acquisition and conservation of public lands.  Congress took action on this recommendation, creating the Land & Water Conservation Fund in 1965 as the primary funding vehicle for acquiring land for parks and national wildlife refuges.  While the fund has been by all accounts a success in achieving its goals, much work remains to be done and the fund is regularly the target of budgetary battles and attempts to reallocate its resources to other priorities.  Today, the four federal land management agencies estimate the accumulated backlog of deferred federal acquisition needs is around $30 billion. 

I expect climate change will dominate the agenda for the young lawyers of our current era.  They will need to tackle challenges not only relating to controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, but also adaptation resulting from climate change.  Sea level rise, altered agricultural growing seasons, drought and water management, and other issues will increase in prominence for this next generation.

We can expect our infrastructure needs to continue to evolve – not only replacing aging roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads, ports, and airports, but also the move to urban centers and the redevelopment of former industrial properties.  Autonomous vehicles and drones also pose novel environmental and land use issues.  These trends will require us to apply “old” environmental tools in new ways, and certainly to innovate.  As my colleague Fred Wagner recently observed on his EnviroStructure blog, laws often lag developments, with benefits and detractions.  Hopefully the environmental lawyers of the future will not see – or be seen – as a discrete area of practice so much as an integrated resource for planners and other professions.  Only in this way can the environmental bar forge new solutions to emerging challenges.

The global production and movement of products creates issues throughout the supply chain, some of which are just coming to the fore.  From raw material sourcing through product end-of-life considerations, environmental, natural resource, human rights, and cultural issues necessitate an environmental bar that can nimbly balance progress with protection.  As sustainability continues its evolution from an abstract ideal to something that is ever more firmly imbedded in every aspect of business, products, services, construction, policymaking and more, environmental lawyers need to stay with their counterparts in other sectors that are setting new standards and definitions.  This area in particular is one in which non-governmental organizations and industry leaders often “set the market,” with major consequences for individuals, businesses, and the planet.

Finally, as technology moves ever faster, so do the tools with which to observe our environment, to share information about potential environmental risks, and to mobilize in response.  With limited resources, government enforcers are already taking a page from the playbooks of environmental activists, who themselves are bringing new pressures for disclosures and changes to companies worldwide.  With every trend noted above, companies must not underestimate the power of individual consumers in the age of instantaneous global communication, when even one or two individuals can alter the plans and policies of government and industry.

Before Henry Diamond passed away, he penned an eloquent call to action that appeared in the March/April edition of the Environmental Law Institute’s Environmental Forum (“Lessons Learned for Today”)I commend that article to you.  It shares the story of the 1965 White House Conference on Natural Beauty and how a diverse and committed group of businesspeople, policymakers, and conservationists (some of whom were all of those things) at that event influenced the evolution of environmental law and regulation for the decades to come.  Laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and others have their roots in that Conference.  In recognition of his lifetime of leadership, Henry received the ELI Environmental Achievement Award in October 2015.  The tribute video shown during the award ceremony underscores Henry’s vision and commitment to advancing environmental law.  I hope it may inspire ACOEL members and others to follow Henry’s lead.

These are just a few things I think the future holds for environmental lawyers.  What trends do you predict?  How should the environmental bar and ACOEL respond?  



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