Western Resources Legal Center: investing in ag's legal future

Apr 4, 2014
by WLJ

While most ranchers would probably be quick to tell you they sure aren’t lawyers, they might also admit they find themselves needing an awful lot of help in the courtroom. Grazing, particularly on federal lands, is a prime target of radical enviro-litigators. According to Bob Skinner, a board member of the national Public Lands Council (PLC), ranchers usually have to jump in and defend grazing when radical groups sue the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or Forest Service.

“We have to intervene in all the lawsuits, because if we rely on the government to watch out for us, then we have to live with the consequences of what they’ll settle for—and it’s often not good for us,” Skinner said. “We have to be honest with ourselves: We’ve been slowly losing this war. Part of the reason is the environmental litigators; they make an industry of it. We don’t. Cowboys just don’t sue; it’s not in our nature.”

Skinner is a fifth-generation cattle rancher out of Jordan Valley, OR. He and his grandchildren live and work side-by-side on the ranch.

“Educating our youth is the way to treat this problem. Otherwise, we’re just treating symptoms, and we will always be on the defense. We need to teach our young people the truth about our business—especially young people who will go to bat for grazing in the courtroom,” Skinner said. “That’s why we’re so excited about Western Resources Legal Center (WRLC).”

WRLC is the nation’s first legal skills educational program focused on natural resource management and development. Through WRLC, law students work on real legal problems with real clients—and the clients are farmers, ranchers, loggers, miners and the like.

The 8-year-old nonprofit program is affiliated with Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland and is led by Executive Director and supervising attorney, Caroline Lobdell. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Lewis and Clark.

“We have students lined up out the door to get into WRLC’s program,” Lobdell said. “If it weren’t for donations, especially from ranchers and livestock organizations, we couldn’t handle half of the students we do. We’ve had hundreds of students come through our program— doing research and writing memos on all kinds of lawsuits and legal questions for the grazing industry and other natural resource industries. And we have a great success rate: We have generations of graduates placed in key positions, and more rising stars each year.”

According to Skinner, who was a charter member of the WRLC board, PLC is able to contribute to WRLC’s efforts, and meanwhile the entire industry benefits.

“PLC donates, as do many of our western livestock affiliates. And last year we approved an educational grant of $70,000 from the Public Lands Endowment Trust, which will allow WRLC to expand the program and reach more students,” Skinner said. “The grant will be used strictly for education, allowing the center to hire an additional clinical law professor to teach alongside Caroline.”

As for the benefits to PLC and the entire industry, Skinner said the return on the investment is immeasurable.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of money we’ve saved, not just on actual lawsuits, but on legal advice,” he said. “In the last two years alone, the livestock industry likely saved around $400,000 by working with WRLC instead of just through traditional law firms. And the results we get are incredible.”

Just mention the name “Caroline” at a national livestock meeting, Skinner said, and “pretty much everyone will know who you’re talking about. We all have so much respect for her and what she’s doing.”

Talk to Lobdell, and she’ll be happy to report on some of the most recent cases and legal memos WRLC has done or is doing for PLC—many of them free of charge or for just the minimal court filing fees.

“The Forest Planning rule challenge is definitely our most pressing case right now.

We’ll have oral arguments for that case in DC on April 29,” said Lobdell. “We’re also representing PLC in the sage grouse case where BLM is proposing to slash grazing on a great number of allotments—which would set terrible precedent for future grazing decisions in the name of ‘sage grouse conservation.’ We also led the charge to get industry courtstanding to intervene in those kinds of cases. Then there are numerous Supreme Court cases where we have filed briefs for PLC— like the victorious forest roads runoff case (Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center). There’s also the lower-profile stuff that doesn’t necessarily make it to the courtroom, like legal analyses of BLM Handbook revisions. You can save your self a lot of grief by tackling these issues early before they develop into lawsuits.”

Lobdell said WRLC also does work for National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a sister organization to PLC, as well as for individual ranchers struggling with grazing and water rights issues. She said her work is very rewarding—which is lucky, given the endless stream of work to be done.

“There are all kinds of things to keep our eye on going forward—the possibility of unworkable sage grouse regulations and/or a listing; the wild horse issue; the list goes on and on, really.”

Lobdell said anyone interested in learning more about the program—or how to contribute with a tax-deductible donation—should visit www.wrlegal.org.

When asked how she stays motivated in what seems to be an endless battle, she laughed.

“You have to love what you’re fighting for, and who you’re fighting for. Our resource providers—ranchers, loggers, miners, energy producers—they are some of the least understood and least appreciated in our country, I think. There’s such a disconnect these days, especially in urban centers. If you were to ask most people, do you know where the copper for your phone lines come from? The food in your fridge? The roof over your head? I’m not sure they could tell you. I think that explains a lot of our struggles. But we keep smiling and keep fighting!” — WLJ