Sharon Duggan – Kin to the Earth

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Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017

California’s forest practice rules—often described as the most protective in the nation—largely stem from one woman: Sharon Duggan. Sharon is a one-woman force-of-nature, a potent combination of caring and cunning. For 35 years, Sharon has provided legal muscle to help individuals and grassroots organizations challenge the status quo and preserve our North Coast. She is a kin to the earth.

Sharon started practicing environmental law in 1982. Having grown up in Humboldt, Sharon took inspiration for her work from her roots. She remembered what the landscape was once like: rivers with fish, big trees, and a vibrant, locally-based timber industry that was the lifeblood for the small towns in which she lived. And she saw the change that occurred when Big Timber started taking over the local timber companies.

Relatively fresh out of law school, Sharon took on her first forestry case, the storied EPIC v. Johnson, in 1983. Georgia-Pacific had filed a timber harvest plan to clearcut old-growth redwoods in Little Jackass Creek near what is now the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park along the Mendocino Coast. On behalf of EPIC, Sharon challenged the state’s approval of the logging plan, arguing that the state did not consider the cumulative effects of the logging. The case may have seemed like a longshot to some—environmentalists up against the good ol’ boys in local court—but that didn’t stop Sharon. With a thoughtful yet tough prosecution of her case, Sharon won. The lawsuit helped generate enthusiasm for the protection of the Sinkyone, eventually leading to its preservation in perpetuity.

This scenario—a longshot case that was won because of hard work— has repeated itself throughout the rest of Sharon’s career. In court, Sharon is a ruthless litigator. She is diligentin her preparation, often tasked with the needle-in-the-haystack work of reviewing banker-boxes of documents to find a smoking-gun. She is creative in her writing, massaging the narrative of a case to appeal to a certain judge or to catch favorable political winds. And she is dogged, pressing every angle and avenue she can find in pursuit of justice. To opposing counsel, Sharon must seem like a pit bull. But to her friends and clients, she is a saint.

She has been a mentor to many. Rob DiPerna, Forest and Wildlife Advocate at EPIC, counts himself as a disciple of Sharon’s. “Sharon Duggan is a master-strategist and staunch supporter of the rights of public engagement and enforcement in environmental decision-making,” said Rob. “I have been so very blessed to account Sharon as a friend, colleague, and my primary mentor as I have grown into my professional capacity over the years.”

Phil Gregory, co-counsel for Richardson Grove, says of Sharon, “Sharon constantly inspires me not merely to save our planet but to do everything I can to preserve our natural resources as our sacred heritage. Sharon has made a fundamental impact in my life both as the role model of a true environmental attorney and as a loving, compassionate soul.” Phil adds, “Go Giants!”

Rachel Doughty, Attorney at GreenFire Law, also counts Sharon as a mentor. “Sharon is a tireless advocate for the places and people she cares about. She has been a tremendous mentor to me. There is one thing she is terrible at: retirement. She continues to dedicate herself to the future of our children and to mentor the next generation of attorneys, even while maintaining a docket protecting the wild spaces that are so loved and such a part of our identity as Californians.”

Despite her threats at retirement, Sharon has not slowed down. Sharon continues to work as counsel to EPIC, most recently back in court in EPIC’s challenge to Caltran’s proposed widening of Richardson Grove at the expense of old-growth redwoods. Sharon is a board member at Our Children’s Trust, developing innovative legal doctrines to take on climate change. And she provides limitless advice to the attorneys, young and old, who call her out of the blue to pick her brain.

Outside of her legal work, Sharon is a passionate advocate for Palestine, women’s rights, and a liberal democracy. She is a longtime volunteer with Redwoods Monastery in Whitethorn and is often found there on weekends, putting in hard labor to help the people and place that she loves. Sharon is buoyed by her longtime partner, Anne.

This article was published in the August 2017 EcoNews.