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EPIC's Reflections on the 2024 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference

Updated: Mar 11


From Friday, March 1st to Sunday, March 3rd, three EPIC staff attended the 42nd annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) in Eugene, Oregon, which was organized around the theme “Cultivating Community” this year.


Since 1982, Land Air Water (LAW), a student organization at the University of Oregon School of Law, and Friends of Land Air Water (FLAW), a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, have hosted what has grown into the largest public interest environmental law conference in the world. According to LAW, the conference unites more than 5,000 activists, attorneys, students, scientists, and concerned citizens from over 50 countries around the globe to share their experience and expertise every year.


EPIC looks forward to this conference every year, which was started, in part, to create a space for environmentalists to gather and share information without having to host panels with companies that only care about environmental laws in order to minimally comply with them.


Here are some reflections from EPIC staff about their favorite takeaways from this year’s conference:


EPIC’s Conservation Attorney Melodie Meyer’s favorite panels at this year’s conference were the legally super-nerdy “Holding Governments Accountable for Authorizing Activities that Take Protected Species,” and the inspiring “Forest Defense is Climate Defense: Grassroots Strategies for Winning Campaigns During the Climate Crisis”: 


Northern spotted owl.
Northern spotted owl. Photo by Jessica Weinberg McClosky / NPS (Public Domain).
  • The “Holding Governments Accountable” panel showcased the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the legal concept of "causation," or being able to show that the person you are suing actually caused the harm that you suffered. This panel stood out to Melodie, not only because it broke down relevant case law, but also because the audience — full of lawyers, professors, and law students — was able to brainstorm with the panelists during the Q&A.  The group discussed how the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) is more and more frequently writing Biological Opinions for projects and actions that find there is no “take” to endangered species or critical habitat, even if the project is very obviously bad for the listed species at issue. “Take” under the ESA means “to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.” An “incidental take” is one that is unintentional, but expected — and in most Biological Opinions, the agency overseeing a project is given a permit by the USFWS to take a limited number of listed species.  Members of the audience suggested that in the case that the USFWS refused to even acknowledge that the project would harm a listed species, starting fresh with a citizen suit under Section 9 of the ESA (“Prohibited Acts”) might provide a better legal claim than trying to challenge the findings of the Biological Opinion, which are often upheld by courts as sufficient analysis. Super nerdy and fun!


The Flat Country project area, between Highway 126, Highway 242 and Mt. Washington, east of McKenzie Bridge, Oregon.
The Flat Country project area, between Highway 126, Highway 242 and Mt. Washington, east of McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. Image from Google Maps.
  • The “Forest Defense is Climate Defense” panel was not as legal-heavy — but rather insightful into recent forest defense work in Oregon. Forest defenders in Oregon certainly have their work cut out for them, as regulations on private timber harvesting in Oregon are less robust than in California and have led to a significant amount of clearcutting (which was very visible on our road trip from Arcata to Eugene) and the infamous “checkerboard effect.” Forest defenders from Oregon Wild on the panel shared their success in stopping the Flat Country timber harvest sale proposed by the U.S. Forest Service, which would have cut down old-growth trees within the headwaters of the McKenzie River, located between Highway 126, Highway 242 and Mt. Washington, east of McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. Oregon Wild credited their success to consistent and intense pressure on the Forest Service. Some of their campaign tactics included seizing on President Biden's 2022 Executive Order 14072 that directs the Secretary of Agriculture to “develop policies, with robust opportunity for public comment, to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address threats to mature and old-growth forests on Federal lands,” as well as hosting fun events for the public to learn more about the importance of old-growth forests such as a float on the McKenzie River. Oregon Wild also found that spending time getting young volunteers to do tree surveys was another educational moment that allowed people to connect to the forest. The successful use of policy hooks and focus on public education gave Melodie inspiration for some of EPIC’s advocacy efforts, including the campaign to save Jackson Demonstration State Forest.


EPIC’s 30x30 Coordinator & Del Norte County Advocate Josefina Barrantes had a hard time deciding which panels were her favorites because each and every one of them stuck with her and made her reflect on her advocacy work, but wanted to highlight "Brazilian Amazon Attorneys in Defense of their Lands & Territories" and "Bird Conservation Regulations & Legal Challenges":


Clearcutting adjacent to intact forest in Brazil's Amazon rainforest region.
Clearcutting adjacent to intact forest in Brazil's Amazon rainforest region. Photo by Monja Šebela via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
  • The first panel Josefina attended, “Brazilian Amazon Attorneys in Defense of their Lands & Territories,” brought in Brazil's first indigenous attorneys to talk about their advocacy to protect their communities through local and regional efforts. Josefina was moved by their work seeking to protect their sacred lands, defending human rights, and ensuring a healthy environment for future generations. The obstacles these advocates faced when getting their degrees and facing threats of violence as they continue their work is not easy. Being an environmental activist is not always sunshine and roses, especially when you are working to defend the right to self-determination for your community and future generations.


Marbled murrelet.
Marbled murrelet. Photo by National Park Service (Public Domain).
  • Another incredible panel was “Bird Conservation Regulations and Legal Challenges”. Hosted by American Bird Conservancy staff and partners, this panel discussed current regulatory issues and ongoing litigation concerning pesticides, incidental take, lead toxicosis, seabird bycatch, and northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet recovery. Key highlights of the panel included federal analysis being done on offshore wind turbine’s effects on seabirds, how the Northwest Forest Plan can help further the protection of the northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet, and the negative impacts of the commercial fishing industry on seabirds.  Although most of the information was very technical, Josefina’s favorite part was learning how truly delicate the marbled murrelet is. This ESA-listed seabird thrives on the shore closest to mature and old-growth trees, lays one singular egg each year, and doesn’t build nests. Murrelets avoid fragmented and partially developed forest landscapes, preferring large areas of coastal and near coastal old-growth forest for finding abandoned nests from other birds in which to lay their eggs. The delicacy of the marbled murrelet creates a clear argument to conserve mature and growth trees along the coast in the Pacific Northwest. How iconic!


EPIC’s Climate Attorney Matt Simmons decided to focus on panels at the conference relating to tackling the causes of climate change, including "Kicking Gas: the Movement to Transition Off of Methane in the PNW" and "Carbon Capture: A Pipedream":


Gas stove.
Gas stove. Photo by deepblue4you / Getty Images Signature via Canva Pro.
  • The first panel Matt attended was entitled “Kicking Gas: The Movement to Transition Off of Methane in the PNW.” Methane (which you might know by its public relations name “natural gas”) is a greenhouse gasm just as “natural” as oil or coal. Once touted by the industry as a “bridge fuel” that could help the country transition away from coal, recent studies of both the environmental and health impacts of methane have made it increasingly clear that banning gas hookups in new construction is necessary to protect people and the planet. Did you know that raising your children in a home with a methane (or natural gas) stove is as likely to give them asthma as raising them in a home with a smoker? The panel focused on local efforts in Eugene to ban natural gas hookups in new apartments. Unfortunately, a negative ruling in a 9th circuit decision following a similar ban in Berkeley has stymied those efforts in California. However, activists and attorneys are hard at work thinking of other creative ways to protect people and the planet from this dangerous fuel source.


Carbon capture technology used at a coal mine in 2014.
Carbon capture technology used at a coal mine in 2014. Photo by Peabody Energy, Inc. via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA-3.0).
  • The second panel Matt attended was entitled “Carbon Capture: A Pipedream.” Carbon capture & storage (CCS) is the idea that we can continue to burn fossil fuels and biomass as long as we “capture” the carbon dioxide emissions at the smoke stack and then store the carbon underground. This solution to climate change is being pushed very hard by the fossil fuel industry because it would allow them to continue to operate. Not surprisingly, the experts on this panel had nothing nice to say about CCS. First, it’s not very effective. Despite claims that CCS can capture 90% of the carbon from a smokestack, real-world testing has consistently shown that the technology falls far short of that goal. Moreover, transporting and storing the captured carbon dioxide is not without risks. A ruptured carbon dioxide pipeline in Mississippi hospitalized 45 people and caused cars to stop working as the carbon dioxide in the air made engine ignition impossible.


These panels reaffirmed Matt’s belief that it’s more important than ever to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels by electrifying our homes and appliances and developing renewable energy sources. We can’t let the fossil fuel industry continue to harm people and the planet.


Learn more about PIELC at www.pielc.org, on Instagram at @pielc_uo, or on Facebook at /pielcuo — and also consider attending next year’s conference!



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