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Environmental Law Students Learn from Attorneys in the Field During Virtual Summer Class

During the summer, it’s relatively quiet on our campus and virtually, except for students taking our summer classes.

One virtual class this summer gave environmental law students a great opportunity to hear from attorneys making significant impacts in Pennsylvania and nationwide.

As part of her National Resources Law class in July, Widener Law Commonwealth Professor and Environmental Law and Sustainability Director Sarah Everhart arranged for guest speakers to share their experiences and expertise with students via Zoom. The topics included public lands and fossil fuel development, water rights and protecting water quality, wildlife protection, and advice for students on navigating the environmental job market.

One of the featured speakers was Kyle Tisdel, senior attorney and climate and energy director from the Western Environmental Law Center. Tisdel’s work involves the use of public lands and fossil fuel development, with a focus on aligning federal decision-making with the demands of climate science.

During the summer course, Tisdel shared his work in representing tribal groups and his role in Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, et al, v. Haaland, et al. In this case, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found the federal government, specifically the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, violated the National Environmental Policy Act by conducting inadequate environmental reviews for nearly 200 drilling applications in the greater Chaco region, an area viewed as sacred to indigenous people and the home of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

“The National Environmental Policy Act is a procedural statute that requires agencies to perform an anticipatory review of the environmental impacts of government action and explore less impactful alternatives,” explained Professor Everhart. “This can be a dry topic to examine in class, however, hearing from an engaging presenter about how the act was instrumental in preventing environmental harm in a vulnerable community was an invaluable addition to my course.”

Students found his presentation very engaging.

“He was very down to earth and you could tell he really cares about the work he does,” said Lindsay Williamson. Megan Isherwood agreed, added that “sometimes, studying the law, I don’t understand the practical aspects of it. I like hearing how the law plays out in real life.”

Robert Caccese, the director of policy, planning and communications for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, was also a featured guest speaker. Caccese has a rich background in environmental law, national resources law, and water law. He shared with students the unique nature of water rights and protecting natural resources here in Pennsylvania on the state level. “He was able to articulate the delicate balance, inherent in natural resources management, of allowing public recreation while preserving national resources for future generations,” said Everhart.

 “Bob showed a lot of knowledge and passion about how the law plays into our experiences with nature,” said student Kayla Kerr. “He not only has an impressive background, but he did a great job fostering excitement about environmental law and policies. Hearing about the work he does at the commission really helped to make the material connect in my head to real life situations and really furthered my understanding of the class.”

Guest speaker Megan Backsen, a 10th Circuit Court attorney with the Western Watershed Project discussed her role in Western Watersheds Project, et. Al. v. Haaland, et al. In this case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service violated the Endangered Species Act when both federal agencies authorized the killing of up to 72 grizzly bears in part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Everhart said she invited Backsen to speak to the class about the Endangered Species Act, specifically about how it could be used to stop federal action that imperiled an at-risk species. Backsen also discussed her career path and offered advice to students on navigating the environmental job market.

Students, including Sri Alaparthi, enjoyed hearing from Backsen about this particular case. “When I read the case before class, I thought it was very complicated, but she really broke it down into simple bullet points that were easy to understand.”

Everhart hopes to provide similar learning experiences to allow students to hear from practicing attorneys in environmental law about their work and advice they can offer on how students can best pursue career opportunities in their field.

If you’d like to hear more news from the Widener Law Commonwealth environmental law program, please join our listserv. If you’re interested in being a future guest speaker, please contact Professor Everhart at [email protected].


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