After graduating from Penn Law with a joint Masters degree in Bioethics, Garrison Todd L’18, MBE’18 joined Advocates for the West as a Catalyst Fellow. Through his work there, he has engaged deeply with some of today’s most pressing issues in environmental law. He recently spoke with Penn Law’s Office of Communications about his fellowship experience so far.
Penn Law: Tell us about your Catalyst fellowship, including where you’re working, the problems that you’re responding to, and the goals of your project.
Garrison Todd: I’m working at Advocates for the West, a public interest, non-profit environmental law firm headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Advocates’ mission is to defend western public lands, waterways, and wildlife on behalf of conservation groups and concerned citizens, and to ensure communities have access to pollution-free air and water. The majority of my work has focused on the reduction of noise and water pollution and protecting fish and wildlife. In particular, I am contesting a number of flawed environmental analyses in which various government agencies each failed to perform the necessary analysis before trying to begin a major agency action. I have also examined nuclear waste disposal regulations, fought to stop wastewater treatment plants from discharging excessive pollutants, and evaluated the effect of constructing a major highway through a National Conservation Area. My goal is to protect wildlife, waterways, and public places from unnecessarily destructive practices.
PL: What are the primary ways you’re working to pursue environmental protection – advocacy, litigation, other methods?
GT: Most of Advocates’ work focuses on litigation and participation in the administrative rulemaking process on behalf of our clients. For example, we sued the government for operating a facility that studies domestic sheep because their grazing practices on allotments within a crucial wildlife corridor are harming other fragile species. Additionally, as attorneys representing numerous non-profits engaged in environmental advocacy, we also work to keep our client groups educated and informed about the latest legal developments in their areas of interest. Accordingly, the majority of my work so far has been writing comments, complaints, and other court pleadings, but I have also spent time drafting memos to respond to various clients’ questions about changing laws and regulations governing public lands and waters.
PL: Has your work with Advocates for the West brought to light any environmental issues you were previously unaware of?
GT: Before coming to Advocates, I only had experience with environmental laws on or near the east coast. Water laws, however, are very different in the drier western states. In the east, riparian law links ownership of property on water to the use of that water. In contrast, most western states use the prior appropriations doctrine to govern who has rights to water. This means the first people to put the water to a beneficial use have a right to keep using that much water, and depending on the state it may not matter what comes along later that could put the water to better use. To maintain these water rights, you often have to keep using the water, which can result in a lot of waste and controversy. Some of these diversions of water predate environmental laws, so trying to get their owners to voluntarily be more environmentally conscious can be difficult.
PL: How did your experiences before and during law school lead you to this project or public interest generally?
GT: I grew up spending my summers in northern Michigan where my grandmother lives, sailing, kayaking, and swimming in Grand Traverse Bay. My first experience with environmental issues was when I witnessed the invasion of zebra mussels in the bay — an invasive species that costs the U.S. economy millions of dollars a year by clogging water intakes and equipment, damaging valuable local species, and decreasing tourism due to covering beaches in sharp shells. Observing firsthand the damage that lax regulation could cause inspired a life-long drive to protect the environment. I received a concentration in environmental studies in undergrad and I spent a summer working to clear trails, restore watersheds, and remove invasive species. At Penn Law, I was the Director of Regulatory Projects for the Environmental Law Project, and completed an externship at the EPA, among other environmental law-related projects. My wife and I love to spend time in the great outdoors and we really loved our hikes in the intermountain west, so when I found Advocates for the West, it was a perfect fit.
PL: Thus far, what accomplishment during your fellowship are you most proud of?
GT: As the majority of my work is litigation and it’s not the fastest system — especially when the government decides to shut down for a while — I have not had any victories in the courtroom yet. However, immediately after one of my cases was filed to protect vulnerable species, a special interest group on the opposite side of the issue proposed a number of compromises and seemed to show a new willingness to cooperate. Having that impact just by speaking up really demonstrated the effect litigation can have right off the bat, and why smaller advocacy organizations are so important to help analyze and respond to the innumerable environmental issues going on around the country.