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Interviews With Our Clerks

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You'd think hanging around with a small group of twenty-something environmentalists would be sort of raucous, right? Well, "inspiring" is more like it.

You might want to print this one out and, just when you're worried about how we can sustain the environmental movement, read it. Earthjustice law clerks Jeremy Hojnicki, Zachary Redmond, and Catherine Tognazzini are as deeply committed to the earth and its treasures as you could ever hope. Read on, and see what we mean.

Ranger Rick, the Discovery channel and Edward Abbey

Earthjustice: Where did your interest in the environment come from?

Jeremy: Probably as a child, watching the Discovery channel, reading Ranger Rick, going to the zoo, but the first thing that really struck me was when my family took a trip to Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park, and the Grand Canyon when I was about 12. We also stopped at Lake Powell. That struck me as an environmental aberration -- seeing on one side Glen Canyon, which was almost as beautiful as the Grand Canyon, then seeing Lake Powell, which was an artificial lake, a completely ruined ecosystem, and everyone on this boat trip thought it was the greatest thing they had ever seen. I just sat there and was horrified. After that I knew I would never want to see something like that happen again, and that I would want to do whatever I could to stop it from happening again. So working for Earthjustice has been a dream, because the attorneys actually do those types of projects, working with the law to protect federal lands and help the environment.

Zach: I've always been interested in environmental issues, and saw the law as a way for me to effect the positive change I'd like to. I've never been strong at science, but have been interested in environmental protection and the law was what fit me best, something I could be good at. I've spent the majority of my life backpacking, doing river trips, and climbing, so I've been out there seeing things, and seeing things I like and seeing things I don't like happening. It's funny, actually, I think Lake Powell was also a rallying point for me as a teenager, like reading Edward Abbey novels and things like that.

Jeremy: I read that book after I went there, and I thought Edward Abbey put into words everything I felt at that moment.

Catherine: It sounds like we're all kind of coming from a similar place. I've always been interested in environmental issues, and spent my summers up in the Lake Tahoe area, hiking and camping and doing things of that sort, so have always had an appreciation for nature. I went to undergrad at Boulder, which is kind of an environmental hot spot, so got more interested in environmental issues there. Then I worked for a couple of years after college and realized it was going to be hard to really do anything I was interested in doing in the environmental field without getting some sort of a graduate degree. Law school seemed like the next logical step. I think the law at this point is the best tool for effecting environmental change, so that's the direction I picked and so far I'm really enjoying it.

Earthjustice: Can you tell me a little about the issues you worked on and the clients you worked with during your clerkships?

Zach: I did mostly Clean Air Act work. I did a lot of work on the Bay Area Metropolitan Transit Commission case and I worked on some San Joaquin Valley air issues, and I also worked on fish stocking in wilderness areas. The clean air clients included the Latino Issues Forum and the local Sierra Club chapter.

Jeremy: I worked mostly with the ESA (Endangered Species Act) on a case we are probably going to bring in the Sacramento area. I also worked a little bit on an issue involving concentrated animal feeding operations under CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act). On both my cases the Sierra Club was signed on as a client, along with the National Wildlife Federation in the ESA case. I also went to a meeting with a lot of animal rights advocates, who weren't signed on as clients but were helping with background information. It was exciting to meet with the clients and be involved on that level.

Catherine: I actually got to work on a bunch of different things. I spent a lot of time working on clean air issues in the San Joaquin Valley. I drafted two different motions to intervene in cases that deal with exemptions for industry, and I worked a little bit on the red-legged frog intervention that we're working on, which is ESA-related. I sat in on conference calls with clients like CalTrout and the California Native Plant Society and NRDC. I got to hear about what was going on and how people interact, which was really interesting. I also did a lot of research on issues involving the National Environmental Policy Act. I feel like I got a taste of everything, which was really great.

Earthjustice: What do you feel personally are our most pressing environmental issues?

Catherine: I think it's hard to narrow it down -- they're all pretty intertwined. I also think it depends on what area you're in. Obviously in the San Joaquin Valley air quality is a huge issue, whereas in other areas maybe it's water quality. Every area has a little bit of every problem. I haven't narrowed my focus yet -- I'm interested in everything and it seems like all of the issues are pressing at this moment.

Jeremy: I agree. It depends on where you are, and you can't say one issue -- air or water -- is more important. We all need clean air and clean water, including animals. I'm from the Midwest and go to school out East, so it's exciting for me to be on the West Coast, where there are endangered species issues and there are a lot of federal lands and really spectacular national parks and national monuments that need protection, which is why I chose to be out here.

Zach: I generally agree. One of the things I've picked up in the last couple of years, being in law school and especially being here, is the fact that American environmental laws are some of the strongest in the world. The flip side of that is that a lot of other places in the world have serious environmental degradation issues that just aren't being addressed at all. These are places we don't think about a whole lot, like Central Asia or Southeast Asia, with tropical rainforests and other important resources. We have this whole slew of very strong environmental laws, but we also have higher levels of consumption than the rest of the world, so maybe we need those laws. We tend to forget about things that are happening in the rest of the world, but I think that's going to be increasingly important for American environmental attorneys and environmentalists in general.

Jeremy: And we'll need to try to find a way to use our laws and our legal system to keep our corporations accountable -- and our government accountable -- for things they do abroad that are causing some of the big issues Zach just talked about.

Earthjustice: better than they ever expected (really, they said that!)

Earthjustice: Was your internship at Earthjustice all you thought it would be? Was there anything that surprised you?

Catherine: I thought it was amazing. I was really excited to be working for Earthjustice, because I knew when I started law school that I wanted to work for an organization like Earthjustice. So I was very excited to be able to get a job here. I thought it was great - I loved it. I was really excited about all of the cases we were working on, and of course everyone who works there is amazing, and very helpful and knowledgeable.

I didn't know exactly what to expect; I had a general idea, but I didn't know exactly what I'd be working on, and the types of things I'd be doing. I think the best thing for me was to figure out how nonprofit environmental law works, and to be able to see that it does actually work and that they are making strides. It got me very excited about being able to do that when I graduate. I guess it was everything I was hoping for and more.

Zach: It was definitely everything I was hoping for. I don't know if it was a complete surprise, but what was kind of exciting for me was to work on a lot more urban and human health issues than I expected a group like Earthjustice, especially with its long Sierra Club tradition, to work on. I think that's especially true here in the Oakland office, with the Healthy Cities/Healthy Wildlands initiative, which is really exciting for an organization like this to be doing. It's an issue that doesn't get addressed as much as others.

The clean air work was really exciting and something that you can really feel good about and see a tangible connection to. You can talk to people on the street and say 'I'm working on cleaning up the air in the San Joaquin Valley for children who have astounding rates of asthma', and anyone can connect to that and no one is going to disagree with that. I'm not saying that I'm trying to be amenable to the general populace, but I just think in general that's kind of a nice thing to be able to do.

Jeremy: I would echo Catherine and Zach that this was an amazing clerkship for me and was everything I could have hoped for and more. Something that didn't necessarily surprise me, but was just interesting to see, was how much we were able to participate, especially in staff meetings and to determine how cases are selected and to meet with the clients and speak with them in conference calls and go to client meetings and go through the legal process. As clerks we were able to participate in all of that, and it made the internship very fulfilling.

Did you hear the one about the environmental lawyer...

Earthjustice: Did your experience change your impressions of the field of environmental law?

Catherine: I was a little surprised at how much time we spend trying to get government agencies to comply with the regulations and do the things they're supposed to do. It was kind of surprising to see just how much time is spent just doing that, which should, by its nature, just be taken care of. But I guess it's a big job, and I'm learning not to assume that everyone in government is just doing their job.

Jeremy: It gave me less faith in the government to protect the environment, but more faith in the nonprofit sector to be a watchdog for the government. When the government is subject to the ebb and flow of the political tide, it's good to see nonprofit organizations like Earthjustice and the clients to step up and act as a voice for the large group of people who do support environmental issues in this country.

Zach: I think what I've gotten from being here and at another environmental group I worked with is that environmental litigators have to be extremely imaginative. That's not to say fast and loose with the facts or the law, but extremely imaginative in coming up with new ways to do things like assert standing. It seems like that can be such a trivial issue but it can be the crux of a case, before even getting to the substance of the litigation. It's exciting to see how things like that have been dealt with in the past, and how they're now pushing the boundaries of different environmental laws.

"It's a big uphill battle, but there's nothing we can do except what we're doing."

Earthjustice: It's easy to get depressed about the environment these days, with everything that's going on. What gives you hope, or what inspires you?

Jeremy: This summer, the attorneys gave me a lot of inspiration. They were great, and I'm sure they could all be making about three times as much money if they wanted to. Seeing them make a big difference, it just shows you that with hard work all the clerks could get there some day and could make a difference like they do.

Zach: Seeing people who work in organizations like this is definitely encouraging, but moreover it's seeing the actual effects on other people, and when people actually can relate to the issues you're working on, just everyday people, like with the air cases we're working on, seeing their effect on other people who are just members of society like you and me. And I think that itself is a lot more encouraging than anything else.

Jeremy: It's funny, last night I was in an Irish pub in Berkeley, and I was talking to the person next to me probably for a half an hour and somehow we got on the topic of what we do, and I said I'm a law student. He asked what I was doing and when I said "working for Earthjustice" he shook my hand immediately and said, "I've been giving money to your organization for ten years, and people like you make a difference." He was middle-aged, and he said, "If I could go back and do everything over again I would do exactly what you're doing, do environmental law." That made me feel good. That's another thing that makes a difference, along with seeing the actual effects, like Zach was talking about.

Zach: I think almost even more encouraging are the people who really aren't supporters, but the people who the work still affects. These are people who wouldn't consider themselves to be environmentally conscious, environmentally minded, wouldn't put themselves in that box, but who have seen the effects on the world around them and in a very pragmatic sense appreciate it. They may not necessarily express it in open terms, but when you can tell that what Earthjustice is doing in litigation and in the policy realm is affecting people like that it's pretty rewarding.

Catherine: I definitely used to get overwhelmed at what a huge undertaking it us to deal with all the environmental problems that are now present in the world. But I think I eventually came to realize I can only do what I can do, and I will be much more effective if I'm not down and depressed about it. And being able to see a lot of the things that Earthjustice and others have accomplished has been really inspiring -- even if they make small strides it's something. Like Zach was saying, being able to talk to people who are not necessarily environmentalists but can relate to issues we're working on . . . all of a sudden they go from thinking "extreme left environmentalism" to "that sounds pretty good". Seeing that change in attitude is pretty hopeful. It's a big uphill battle, but there's nothing we can do except what we're doing.