A Taste of Oregon – Because Nature Needs Advocates

ELAW 2017

Some of the ELAW lawyers from over 80 countries that are working to save the environment (photo provided)

For those interested in public interest environmental law, the annual conference at the University of Oregon is the place to come together with other strategic environmental thinkers and doers. It provides an excellent opportunity for our students to connect with and learn from the broader public interest environmental law scene. This year, there was an added bonus when ELC Legal Director Calvin Sandborn received an award for his environmental and social justice work.

In early March, nine ELC Club students and two ELC staff travelled to Eugene, Oregon for the 35th Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC), the largest gathering of its kind in the world, which typically sees over 3,000 lawyers, activists, educators, concerned citizens and students from around the globe participating in more than 125 panels and workshops. Sessions topics range: protecting freshwater resources; access to information and access to justice issues; renewable energy and resource extraction challenges; agricultural concerns; and the role of media in environmental protection – a cornucopia of public interest environmental law issues to explore.

First year UVic Law student and ELC Club member Courtenay Jacklin said, “I took more notes in two days at PIELC than in an entire semester of [insert favourite first-year course here] law!” (See Courtenay’s comments below.)

This year’s conference theme “One Cause, One Voice” called for voices in opposition to find common ground and maximize the collective impact on legal environmental protection efforts.

This need to unify was reflected in the acceptance speech Calvin Sandborn gave upon receiving the Svitlana Kravchenko Environmental Rights Award. “It is in community that we break the epidemic of alienation that is driving environmental destruction,” he said.

Our travelling ELC community came together over a dinner with a number of ELAW (Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide) lawyers. It was a fruitful opportunity for our students to interact with international lawyers, many of whom were from places where being an environmental protector is life threatening.

ELC Club student Ashley Thomas said, “It was a fantastic conference that left me inspired knowing that there are so many brilliant minds working on environmental law issues around the globe… and that our own Calvin seems to know them all!”

There were many takeaways from the conference, some of them astonishing:

  • Indonesia has had freedom of information laws since 2008, but most people don’t know about them, including local governments;
  • Communities in Brazil are using a mesmerizing world-wide real-time air quality map to monitor and address air quality issues (examples below); and
  • 185 environmental activists were killed in 2015 – two-thirds of them in Latin America.

Some of what we heard was worrisome. The potential dismantling of environmental regulations in the US was a common concern, and there are clearly high and dangerous stakes for both nature and the people involved in fighting the world’s environmental battles. But the courage of ELAW lawyers added to the enthusiasm of law students fostered a groundswell of hope and an overall collective determination to keep going. That’s a community worth celebrating.


One of my favourite panels was led by Tianna Williams-Claussen, a biologist and member of the Yurok tribe, who spoke about the condor’s return to the Pacific Northwest. Her story spoke to the role of the greater community in the establishment of successful captive breeding programs.


Having an interest in conservation biology and the Species at Risk Act in Canada, I was excited to hear about how the State’s Endangered Species Act is used in environmental litigation. While many of the panels featured cases where the ESA was successfully used, I also had the opportunity to learn about alternative legal strategies for species that aren’t protected under the ESA. PIELC provided an incredible introduction to the various ways environmental legislation can be interpreted and used to advance conservation practices.


Courtenay Jackson is a new member of the ELC’s Student Executive for 2017-18. Originally from Regina, Courtenay came to UVic Law to explore her interests in environmental policy and conservation biology.