“A Legacy Worth Leaving” – The 2016 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference

I had a new strategy for the 34th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the University of Oregon Law School. – the grandaddy of all environmental law conferences. This year, I was only going to attend panels that were grassroots inspired and conducted. Anything with even a whiff of Big Green, I would avoid for my sanity’s sake. Turned out to be an excellent scheme.

Over the course of three days, about 3000 people attend and there are over 150 panels in classrooms across the campus and at least nine Keynote Addresses, as well as a concurrent Environmental Film Festival. Pretty much everyone who has ever been instrumental in Gaian protection efforts across the globe has made presentations at PIELC over the decades – David Brower at most all the early ones, Winona LaDuke, John Trudell, Paul Hawken, Cynthia McKinney, Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts …and even government officials and erudite, honorable opponents like Ron Arnold of the Wise Use Movement and Tom Hirons of the grassroots timber workers’ Yellow Ribbon Coalition. Many campaigns were/are hatched at PIELC.

It was early Spring in the Willamette Valley on Thursday, March 3rd, when I picked up my friend Shenna Fortner at an Autozone parking lot where her companions were installing new brake pads on their car before heading off to Four Corners to pick up a tipi adn then on to North Carolina. We headed out on a much shorter trip down the I-5 car-shed to Eugene, settled in at Kim’s house and biked over for the Opening Ceremonies.

Shenna, a second year environmental law student at Vermont Law School, had been asked lead an opening blessing. She began by noting “I see there are a lot of elders in the audience. I apologize for speaking before you. I was asked to do this…” before beginning a Lakota prayer.

She was followed by four second year students at the UofO Law School who were four of the five co-directors of this year’s conference. It is entirely student run and independent to prevent censorship by any party. All four were women. All five and their cadre of other volunteers did a remarkable job on organizing the details of such a big-time event as I described above. They set an excellent tone for the conference.

They each gave a short welcome. Emily Hajarizadeh began by noting the conference theme “A Legacy Worth Leaving” was chosen as her generation knows they will face the brunt of Climate Chaos; environmentalism has been around for a few decades now and, it’s a good time to examine what has worked and what has not. She even noted Direct Action had seemed to work in the past. Hmmm? Things were quickly getting interesting.

Desperate Environmentalism

Friday. Got up at dawn. Clouds all around, but the predicted rains were holding off. Went to an 8:30am talk on “Desperate Environmentalism.” It was put on by Joshua Galperin, a 35-year-old, self-described “fast-talkin’ Yankee” law professor at Yale University.

Galperin wrote a piece on Desperate Environmentalism that was published in the LA Times.  He caught the expected flak from the non-profit industrial-complex-fed Big Greens; as the gist of it is how we continually lose since Big Green “corporate social responsibility consultants,” “clean energy entrepreneurs,” etc. indulge industry and always settle for the least-worst option instead of as the Arch-druid David Brower would forever note, make them take it from us as we kick and scream while staying true to our values.

There was a tech glitch to begin, so Josh asked everyone to introduce themselves and say where they were from. First time that has happened in the many PIELCs I’ve been to over the years. I was surprised at the range of places and activities of the 50 or so who introduced themselves. It truly is an international conference, one that Brower said was the “best of them all.”

The Action’s in the Halls

Earth First! and Rainforest Action Network co-founder Mike Roselle, like David Brower before him, always says “I rarely go to any panels or presentations at a conference anymore;the real action takes place in the halls and outside…” I cruised outside to the front steps of the Law School for what I thought would be a short clean air/clear my head break. Turned out many interesting, good-hearted, intelligent people kept coming, staying and joining a wide-ranging, animated conversation. Attorneys, activists and students carried on about everything from Mountaintop Removal Coal Extraction to Dam Removal to Pesticides to Tropical Forests to Climate Change…

John Bonine, the co-founder of PIELC was there. John, his fellow UofO professor and PIELC co-founder Mike Axline and Ralph Bradley all helped on our Breitenbush Cumulative Effects lawsuit back in 1986. Civil Liberties attorneys Lauren Regan and Maryanne Duggan came by. Josh Gelperin came by, as did Pat Parenteau, a highly respected and entertaining professor at Vermont Law School. Parenteau was presented with this year’s Kerry Rydberg Award at the conference. Rydberg was also one of our forest lawsuit attorneys back in the 80s.

The Bloom is off the Thin

I next went to a panel called “Does Thinning (forests) Work to Preclude Large Fires?” The ever-informative George Wuerthner presented the facts that answer a resounding “No!” Karen Coulter, one of the best, tireless grassroots ecosystems protection advocates I know told of on-the-ground experience with wildfire. While fire ecologist and former wildlands firefighter Tim Ingalsbee wasn’t quite ready to give up on thinning, he did note it seems to be most effective close in to structures at risk. What started out as a “sounds good” idea supported across-the-board by (still, in most cases) the Big Greens is appearing not so benign on closer, scientific look.
Douglas-Fir National Monument

There are 15 or so panels every time period, so one must choose. And, of course, one must miss ones that would otherwise be attended because of one’s choice. That happened at 4pm when I had to miss the showing at the PIELC Film Festival of “American Inspiration: Wilderness.”

Instead, I headed to the panel on “A Proposal to Establish Douglas-Fir National Monument.” I had to, as the 760-square-mile proposal covers the Santiam River Drainage, my backyard since 1979 – the place I am the president of the local grassroots environmental group The Friends of the Breitenbush Cascades. I also have a cabin along a Santiam tributary and am the president of a 72-cabin owner’s association. The area is one where we and many other allies successfully helped save significant Ancient Forests. Said Douglas fir forests are the attraction of the Monument. So, of course, I was interested.

The proposal’s presenters, Andy Kerr, Dominic DellaSala and Stephen Sharnoff, hadn’t talked to me or any local enviros, the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management before coming up with the plan and submitting it as a “conversation starter.” As Kerr noted, none of us were on “our short list.” Two District Rangers, including the one whose District IS the Santiam Watershed, and a couple biologists were there (none in uniform). After hearing the basics of it, a Forest Service fisheries biologist noted that “You should be talking to us. We have some common shared values.”

Kerr, the former Conservation Director of the Oregon Natural Resources Council when ONRC led the Ancient Forest Campaign, responded, “I hear you.” Admitting his bias, as “everything we’ve ever saved came over Forest Service mid-managers objections.” And then he likened it to his perhaps being like “a general who is always preparing to fight the last battle.” (Even when eating humble pie, Kerr is still the General, doncha know?)

I don’t know where the proposal will go. Kerr noted Obama is not going to designate it, so it’s up to a future president. And, there was thus, a serious whiff of pro-Clinton electioneering to it, as well – they even showed a photo meme of the candidates that made that clear. It has way to much Thinning in it for me. And there is that “Designation Effect” that leads to increased tourism every time a place is made National Monument or National Park. I know I would not like seeing Mill City and the blue-collar recreation area of Detroit Lake become like Jackson Hole. I got a lot of questions, but am open to the idea.

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The flags of the Nine Oregon Tribes outside the University of Oregon Student Union.

As always, we took in the Friday night Indigenous Peoples’ Reception at the Many Nations Longhouse behind the Law School. It was packed. There was the usual prayer, salmon and other Native foods donated by the tribes and music, singers, drummers and dancers. It was packed. The Law School and the Nine Oregon Confederated Tribes have a long, wonderful relationship. Many of the panel at PIELC are held in the Longhouse, most of them on Indigenous issues.

Friday night is also the annual OUTlaw Party put on by the young, local hard-core Direct Action activists. About 400 people took in live music and a superb spoken word performance by Slugthang. The annual burning effigy of something to do with Gaian destruction was a timely Public Lands-befouling Golden Calf. Take that, Bundys!
Saturday, I took in a panel at the Longhouse on organizing for Environmental Justice in the poor, unincorporated towns in the San Joaquin and Coachella Valleys of California. These areas are 65% People of Color and 64% low income.

Hillary came by with Opal Creek hero George Atiyeh and we had lunch, walked around some and then she went off and George stayed with me for the day. George is recovering from crashing his plane—remarkable progress after 18 months. He had a great time reconnecting with many old allies. We took in a very-powerful, very well-attended Keynote Address by Mati-Lynn Evans, a life-long-Appalachian producer of Appalachian documentaries. She was later to show their new one Blood on the Mountain about the history of West Virginia, Big Coal, Unions and the current eco-crimes, oppression and ultimate discarding of the local culture.

That began a day of highly-emotional occurrences for me. One thing about PIELC: it will challenge you intellectually and emotionally. We later went to the screening of the powerful documentary with Scott Fogerty, the executive director of Friends of Trees. Scott, a native West Virginian who is a WV Law Grad, was once the ED of the Friends of Opal Creek back when we finally got Wilderness status for the area.

I then took George over to Calvin Hecocta, another Friends of Opal Creek co-founder’s motel room. These Opal Creek warriors hadn’t seen one another since Calvin came to George’s hospital bedside and conducted a Healing Ritual over a year ago. It was quite powerful as we three old comrades caught up on life. Hillary came and got George.

I then went with Shenna and Kim to the Saturday night benefit for the indispensable Civil Liberties Defense Center. CLDC has represented over 2200 activist defendants for free the past 13 years. It was established and helmed by my good friend, the highly-respected Lauren Regan. It is a very worthy organization to support and has two new attorneys and an ever-expanding mission to fill a critical need for activists.

Stand with Indigenous Nations

The reason Klamath Elder Calvin Hecocta was in town was that he was chosen by the co-directors of the conference to receive the prestigious David Brower Award for lifetime activism. I cannot think of a more worthy recipient. One can read why here.

Sunday began with Shenna, Kim and I taking a trip back to Calvin’s room and then off to breakfast with him. We then headed over to the student union building ballroom where the Closing Ceremonies, including the presentation of the Brower Award took place.

We arrived early and everyone set up around Calvin, who sat on a padded bench in the lobby. Soon, many of Calvin’s old allies started showing up. George Atiyeh, Hillary, Mahogany, Sole, Asante, Michael Nixon, Daniel, Eileen…the energy was quite high. Soon, hundreds were arriving, so Sole herded us all in to get good seats.
As the place filled, the festivities started out with Professor B – the poet Dr. Barbara Mossberg giving a rousing playing-with-words run-down of Nature in poem and her own magnificent, though sad, attempt to save a beloved tree.

Then it was time for Calvin. Esack Grueskin, the sole male co-director, introduced me so I could introduce Calvin. I put some of my good friend and ally’s accomplishments out there for the crowd. I noted the importance of and successes of the alliance between Native Rights and Species protection advocates and Grassroots Public Lands protection activists. I even spoke to how Calvin had allied with the Arch-druid David Brower on the Ancient Forest Campaign we all were part of. But, I kept is short, since I knew Calvin was going to speak and that matters.

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Calvin Hecocta, Gaian Champion.

As Calvin ascended the stage to accept the award – one that appropriately had a chuck of the once-salmon-blocking now-blown-up Elwha Dam – he received a standing ovation from the 700 hundred there. He spoke, as he often does, as the voice of the species that are not given voice in our machinations with Nature. He told a story of his first meeting Brower and not getting off to such a great start, as Calvin brought up Brower’s failure to mention other species in Brower’s talk of why we needed to save large tracts of land; that he seemed too focused on landscape and vista and not the impacts on habitats. They obviously came to agreement and worked together on saving forests for all species.

Calvin lamented the passing of the Clan Mother cultures and asked all to go back to that time in their own ancestry where all Life and Spirituality was more Nature-based, where women’s wisdom was more respected, where we all were in it together – all species. The audience was rapt. When Calvin finished, he left the stage to another standing ovation.

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Wendsler Nosie, Sr. and Naelyn Pike from Apache Stronghold.

Then, two representatives of the Apache Stronghold closed out the conference. Last year Sen. John C McCain succeeded in attaching a rider to a must-pass Defense Bill that gave away mining rights to Oak Flat, AZ, an Apache Sacred Site and now a Forest Service campground area that already was broken off from the San Carlos Apache Reservation. The mining company isn’t even a US one. The Apache have responded by occupying the campground and rallying all the grassroots tools. I see it is an exemplary grassroots effort.Wendsler Nosie, Sr. started off with a short documentary on the issue. He then also spoke of the values of a Nature-based Spirituality. He also called from more women’s voices to be heard…for the space to hear them to be seen as necessity and honored. (Law schools, like the Big Greens, are notoriously Alpha and loud. It IS changing…slowly.)Many of his Earth First! allies were in attendance. EF! allied with Nosie and others when they re-instituted the Spirit run up Mt Graham and challenged the Vatican’s plans (yes, the Vatican!) to pepper the Mt Graham summit with even more than three large telescopes already have built on Apache Sacred Land there.

Nosie is a tribal council member and past chairman of the San Carlos Nation. He likened their existence as being POWs of the Indian Wars and Reservations as the POW prisons. He laid out the steps that were to come and asked for support. (At the end, I noticed numerous people lined up to offer support.)

Calvin’s ally on the Enola Hill Sacred Site Campaign in Orgeon, Michael Nixon, is their attorney. My friend Shenna plans to be on the ground at Oak Flat all summer working with Nixon. There is a multi-billion dollar deposit of copper ore at stake here. Nosie has had many death threats; has had to cancel some events due to the danger and wears a bullet-proof vest when in Arizona. It worries me. Shenna worked with her Lakota relatives last summer similarly and it was also quite dangerous in South Dakota. Lots of money at stake – in South Dakota it was the proposed KXL Pipeline crossing Native lands that was the issue – means that those who are impediments to grabbing that lucre are at risk all across the planet.

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Naelyn Pike, Spiritual Warrior

Nosie was followed by his 16-year-old granddaughter Naelyn Pike. Dressed in traditional Apache clothing, she told of her eduction in traditional Apache spirituality. She told of her and her allies’ determination to stop the mining threat. Yes, she also has faced threats. She told the history of many injustices her Nation has endured. Naelyn Pike is a Spiritual Warrior! This all was incredibly moving. Definitely the most moving presentation of this year’s or most other year’s PIELC.

My strategy worked. I had a great time and learned a lot. I got to see people I highly respect. I had fun. And, Calvin getting recognition was the icing on top. I ran into John Bonine, as I left the union building. We talked of how far PIELC has come since 1983 when 75 people came to the first one. I let him know how much I got out of this year’s conference. I told him he could be proud of the grads they are turning out if the conference co-directors are any example. These young people know what they are up against and are looking at what might work to address it. They know it’s gonna take minds AND hearts and grounded, hard work, unprecedented cooperation and addressing First World consumption… OUR habitat is not gonna be saved by some starry-eyed “tech no logic”non-solutions, as the great John Trudell noted. As Trudell’s former cellmate Wavy Gravy says, “It’s all done with people.”

MICHAEL DONNELLY has been an environmental activist since before that first Earth Day. He was in the thick of the Pacific Northwest Ancient Forest Campaign; garnering some collective victories and lamenting numerous defeats. He can be reached at pahtoo@aol.com