Middleton Urges Local Focus for Environmental Lawyers
Environmental lawyers have become associated with liberalism and the Democratic Party in the public’s mind and the partisan label is complicating efforts to build a consensus on needed environmental protections, according to Rick Middleton, founder and president of the Southern Environmental Law Center, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary as a legal advocate for wise stewardship of natural resources in the South.
“Everybody should identify with environmental stewardship,” he told an audience at the Virginia Environmental Law Journal’s 25th anniversary conference March 28, urging activist lawyers to “win the hearts and minds of people to environmental values” by taking on local cases and working for better environmental law at the state level.
Success in future lawsuits will derive from a ”place-based approach” that unites a ”diversity of allies,” he said. In one current case he cited as an example, Middleton said the SELC joined with the American Academy of Pediatricians and commercial fishermen.
Avoiding partisanship, meanwhile, “is easier said than done,” Middleton admitted, but environmentalist lawyers are being labeled as “a special-interest” group, a handicap that must be overcome by “building bridges and making friends rather than enemies.”
In the future the most important environmental advocacy will take place in the South, he said, because southern forests provide habitat for a greater variety of species than any other region, because the South has 20 million acres of vital coastal and estuarial wetlands, and because it has more miles of rivers with a greater variety of aquatic species than any other region of the world. The Southeast’s coal-burning electrical power plants, grandfathered under clean air legislation in the past, are also “a huge issue.”
A series of slides that depicted the growth of urbanization in the South from 1950 to 2020 showed retreating green space being replaced by red city sprawl, particularly in North Carolina and north Georgia, and resulted in the South looking like an ecological crime scene.
Middleton reviewed the major success of the SELC, crediting key staff attorneys, among them David Carr, Kay Slaughter, Ciannat Howett, Blan Holman and Deborah Murray. Those victories include restoration of the Cahaba River in central Alabama, stiff-arming the construction of affluent houses on hammocks (island–like mounds in tidal wetlands) on Georgia’s coast, and preventing logging in five million acres of southern Appalachian forests.
“The main reason we are based in Charlottesville is because we wanted to be near the best law school in the South,” he said. The SELC has grown to include 35 lawyers working on cases in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The SELC has one attorney assigned specifically to Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
• Reported by M. Marshall