Every week or so during the summer, in the small Illinois town where I grew up, a city pickup with a fogging device would cruise the streets, trailing a bluish-white plume of a DDT-laden chemical brew, a picturesque exercise meant to abate mosquitoes.
In those blandly ignorant days of “better living through chemistry,” this was viewed as a harmless – indeed, beneficial – practice. With the approval of our parents, who would call out “Here comes the fog truck!”, my brother and I, neither of us double digits in age, would hop on our bikes and, joined by a posse of friends, pedal along in the cloud. No doubt all the parents thought their offspring were being immunized against insect bites.
When not cycling in toxins, I was obsessed with birds, rabbits and squirrels in our yard, creatures small and large in and around Drummer Creek (no inkling of agricultural runoff giving us pause in wading), the exotic wildlife seen at zoos, on TV and in movies, and the equally foreign fauna, from shells to sharks to shorebirds, encountered on winter trips to Florida. I read voraciously from an early age, with a near-exclusive focus on books about animal life, including some that described the disturbing decline and extinction of species.
So when, in 1963, I saw a CBS special on Rachel Carson’s controversial Silent Spring, I’d already read her books about sea life and viewed her as an unquestionable authority. I was shocked to learn that the sort of chemicals in which I had fecklessly recreated were killing the birds I loved. I got the book and struggled through its chemical terminology. I’d given up following the fog truck—not cool for an 11-year-old—but was now acutely aware of stronger reasons not to play cavalierly with pesticides.
The 1960’s social movement arrived when I was in high school, and I skipped out in April 1970 to celebrate the first Earth Day at a nearby university. I left for college that fall, vaguely planning to do something socially relevant (key words of the era). I dabbled in humanities for two years, pondering what path to follow. I capped my undergrad career with two years in Idaho in a federal program called the Teacher Corps, gaining an education degree while teaching in a low-income school below the Lost River Range.
Living there offered my first experience of mountains, trout fishing and wilderness backpacking, all of which gave me an appreciation for habitats and landscape that the flat fields of my childhood hadn’t.
Not convinced that my vocation lay in teaching, I headed for the last refuge of the chronically indecisive about what to be when they grow up: law school. There, my aim remained to do something socially responsible but didn’t settle on a particular area of law.
After graduation, I got a year’s fellowship with the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, which did everything from constitutional criminal law to environmental work. Not long into my tenure, I took on a case challenging regulations governing offshore oil development. I loved the issues and the clients. At the end of the year, I landed a job in the Bay Area with Natural Resources Defense Council and have practiced environmental law on the pro-environment side (a crucial distinction, as I tell students aspiring to be environmental lawyers) ever since, including nearly 20 years in private practice.
I had worked with lawyers at Earthjustice since my move north and was retained in 2000 to do some work with the California regional office. Over the ensuing years, my work for Earthjustice steadily increased until, in 2008, I joined the staff.
I couldn’t be happier.
Earthjustice’s work addresses critical regional and national environmental issues. My colleagues are the most talented, dedicated and affable crew I’ve ever worked with. And my cases have been both challenging and engrossing, including such varied matters as successfully defending a model, open space-protection ordinance from developer challenges, stopping the creation of a national airport in the Sierra that would have harmed park lands and wilderness, twice defeating attempts by the Bush Administration to gut regulations that protect our national forests, and invalidating a plan for pumping water from California rivers that would have pushed several imperiled fish toward extinction.
I’ve come a long way from my bucolic upbringing and succeeded in refining and achieving my career goal vaguely set in high school. I suspect Rachel Carson would approve of my efforts. In her memory, please don’t repeat my youthful folly: avoid contact with pesticides!
Trent Orr graduated with high honors from Idaho State University in 1974 and cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1977. He clerked for Arizona Attorney General Bruce Babbitt while in law school, was a fellow with the Center for Law in the Public Interest in Los Angeles, worked for Natural Resources Defense Council for eight years, and maintained a private environmental law practice in San Francisco for nearly two decades, during which time he did substantial work for Earthjustice. He joined Earthjustice as a staff attorney in 2008. He has practiced before the federal and state courts in California and the U.S. Supreme Court. He received California Lawyer magazine’s Attorney of the Year award in 2008.
Trent has served as a commissioner alternate on the California Coastal Commission and as a member of the federal advisory commission to Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore. He served on the board of the California Wilderness Coalition for 25 years and is a founding and continuing member of the board of the San Francisco League of Conservation Voters. Trent and his domestic partner, Brian Mikulak, live in San Francisco’s Mission District. In his spare time, Trent continues to read voraciously (but has broadened his reading beyond solely zoological topics) and enjoys cooking, hiking, travel and, of course, wildlife observation, with a heavy emphasis on his feathered friends.