Vawter "Buck" Parker is a 1967 graduate of Stanford University (BA, History) and a 1972 graduate of Harvard Law School. He was in private practice in Portland, Oregon, for eight years before joining Earthjustice as Litigation Coordinator in 1980. He served as Executive Director of the organization from 1997 through 2007 and now holds the position Strategic Adviser, working on special projects.
For many years, Buck coordinated Earthjustice's litigation and was active in opening Earthjustice's new offices around the country. In 1989 he established Earthjustice's International program, which focused initially on the intersection of human rights and environmental concerns and has since expanded to encompass trade issues as well. In 1995, working with environmental lawyers in Latin America, he founded the Asociación Interamericana para la Defensa del Ambiente (AIDA), an organization of public interest environmental law groups dedicated to expanding the use of citizen enforcement to address international environmental issues within the Western Hemisphere. During his tenure as Executive Director he greatly expanded Earthjustice's legislative and communications staffs and led the organization during the critical years of the administration of President George W. Bush.
Buck was for many years a member of the board of Sierra Legal Defence Fund (now Ecojustice) of Canada, the leading environmental advocacy organization in Canada, and remains an honorary director of the organization. He also served for many years on the board of the Campaign for America's Wilderness.
I grew up in Hood River, Oregon, in the Columbia River Gorge. I loved the mountains and the forests, but what fascinated me most was the river itself and the dry rolling country of Eastern Oregon, viewed from the back seat of a car on periodic visits to my grandparents' ranch. In those days there were no dams between Bonneville and Rock Island, so several hundred miles of the river flowed as freely as it ever had, and one could still see the seasonal changes, the eddies and lagoons, and the contrast between the green river edges (now often riprap) and the rimrock above. Saturday afternoon hikes with my dad helped open me up to the country around me, as did the summer vacations in national parks, camping gear strapped to the top of the car and a canvas bag of water hanging on the front.
When I was 12 or 13 we watched the dam at The Dalles being built, then watched as the reservoir slowly inundated Celilo Falls. This was the death of those extraordinary rapids and of the Indian way of life in the area. It was my first introduction to the damage that could be done, environmentally and culturally, when you let others define what is progress.
About this time I began to understand that national forest rangers were not the same as national park rangers. Large-scale clearcutting was then beginning on the Mt. Hood National Forest behind us and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest across the Columbia. Parks were for people and the creatures who lived there; forests were for the timber industry.
Studying history at Stanford, I came upon the big Sierra Club Exhibit Format books and realized there were a lot of other people out there who shared my concerns. After Stanford I went on to Harvard Law School, then became the first student drafted out of the school and sent to Vietnam. Two years later I mustered out of the Army and went to visit my sister and her husband in Pasadena. They had just joined the Sierra Club and had literature lying around their house. I joined then as well.
Early in law school I thought I might pursue a law career on the East Coast, as so many who attend Harvard do, but in Vietnam I realized that the West was my home and that I would return there. After law school I took a job with a commercial law firm in Portland and started becoming active in the Sierra Club and the Oregon Wilderness Coalition. (now the Oregon Natural Resources Council). Along the way I met Julie McDonald and Earl Blauner of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice). One day Earl telephoned to say that he was quitting his job as litigation coordinator and asked whether I'd be interested in applying.
The idea intrigued me. A couple of friends and I had already begun to think about starting an environmentally oriented law firm to serve the Northwest. I now thought I could go to San Francisco, learn how the Legal Defense Fund worked, then come back north and start something new. Fortunately, Fran, then my wife of a mere eight months, liked the idea, too: while I learned the ropes of public interest environmental law, she could pursue a master's in public health administration.
I instantly fell in love with the Legal Defense Fund, its people, and its work, and with San Francisco, and I soon realized that I was better suited to organizational work than to litigation. Rather than start something new, I set out to persuade Rick Sutherland, then Executive Director, to open a new Legal Defense Fund office in the Northwest. It took a while, but eventually a foundation and a donor offered to help, and the Legal Defense Fund opened an office in Seattle in 1987. It had been nearly ten years since the Legal Defense Fund had expanded, and more expansion followed quickly—to Honolulu, Tallahassee, New Orleans, and Bozeman.
I'm proud of my role in this growth, even though I was only one of many, working together, who made it happen. I'm also proud of my role in starting our International Program. This we began in 1989, working initially to establish a connection between human rights and environmental protection and formal recognition under international law of the right to a secure and healthful environment. We have a long way to go, but we will be building on a foundation laid in the early 1990s when our lawyers shortly file a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the Inuit people, whose Arctic homeland is being destroyed by the effects of climate change.
For me, it has been and, happily, continues to be, a fascinating journey. I began as an everyday wilderness activist. Ten years later, I was shuttling between San Francisco, Geneva, and the Amazon rainforest, seeing for myself the damage that environmental destruction can visit on human rights—on people. This in turn has broadened my perspective and led me to see that our work is not simply about protecting beautiful landscapes or endangered animals. It's about protecting it all, including people. Especially people.
"When I was 12 or 13, we watched the dam at The Dalles being built … It was my first introduction to the damage that could be done, environmentally and culturally, when you let others define what is progress."