Several years ago, I attended a lecture on panda bears and their habitat threats by Dr. Pan Wenshi, one of the world's panda experts. After his presentation, I had the good fortune to meet Dr. Wenshi and to compare the threats to grizzly bears in my country with the threats to pandas in China. Through an interpreter, I tried to explain to Dr. Wenshi my role as a litigator, seeking to protect bears and their habitat through citizen-suit enforcement of environmental laws. It was a remarkable conversation that I return to again and again.
Dr. Wenshi was surprised to learn that in the United States private citizens could bring lawsuits. He was even more surprised to learn that we could sue the federal government. And the notion a country could pass environmental laws that would bind private citizens, local governments, corporations, and the federal government was a great surprise to Dr. Wenshi.
That conversation allowed me to understand at a much deeper level what I had often heard -- that the United States "pioneered the universe of citizen-suit enforcement of environmental laws." For some reason, I had never grasped the profound significance of that proposition until I met Dr. Wenshi.
It made me reflect on the fact that in many places around the world, ordinary citizens don't have access to a judicial system. No matter how bad their environmental or personal situation is, their only hope for change is the slow reforms of changing governments or, in more media-intensive countries, the galvanizing effect of media attention.
I also thought about how, even in our legal system (which descends from the English common law), suing the King (or the federal government) is a fairly recent invention. Even today, we often have to defeat arguments about whether we have a right to sue the federal government. But, in the United States, the presumption is that we can sue the federal government for failing to follow the law.
Finally, it made me reflect on how lucky we are to have environmental laws to enforce on behalf of grizzly bears and other wildlife. Over the years, I have worked more and more with Canadian scientists and conservationists. They are pushing for environmental laws that they can use to protect bears and bear habitat, but for now, they have few environmental laws to enforce.
Sometimes we take these fundamental rights for granted, because they have always been there for us to enforce. Certainly, they can -- and need to be -- improved. But, every time I reflect on what I do for a living, it makes me proud to be an American and proud to be working full-time trying to protect grizzly bears, wolves, bison, native trout, wolverines, and all the majesty that still resides in my region in the northern Rockies. I'm lucky to be able to walk into federal court and speak for these species. And we are all lucky to live in a country where our legal system gives these species a fighting chance.
Doug Honnold has been litigating public-interest environmental cases for more than 20 years. Some of Doug's notable successes have included winning the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling reinstating the Forest Service Roadless Rule in December 2002; winning a federal court lawsuit that stopped a proposed gold mine just outside Yellowstone National Park and led to a buyout of the mining properties; stopping Agriculture Under-Secretary Mark Rey's effort to eliminate Forest Service administrative appeals and push through a 47,000 acre logging proposal on the Bitterroot National Forest; winning a lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's grizzly bear recovery plan because of its lack of habitat standards; overturning the Farm Bureau's efforts to have Yellowstone and Idaho wolves killed; forcing the Forest Service to adopt binding road-density standards in grizzly bear habitat on the Gallatin, Targhee, and Flathead National Forests; and obtaining a 2-million acre ban on clearcutting to protect Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers in the southeastern United States. Doug was the managing attorney for the Northern Rockies Regional Office from 1992 until 2012, when he became the managing attorney of the California Regional Office.
Mr. Honnold is a graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley (1982), and received an M.A. in Education from Stanford University (1977) and a B.A. in Humanities from New College of California (1974).