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Citizens Making a Difference in Environmental Law

From documenting the facts on the ground to providing standing, a grassroots conservationist can build a skill set that does much of the legwork for building a legal case at their own expense (and sometimes at their own risk).  Some issues take place in urban areas, others in very remote places where time and travel costs can really add up.  Once they’ve learned an area of statutory and regulatory directives enough, they can often “read” how a problematic situation (a pollution discharge, a lack of an adequate “buffer”, erosion, a questionable project rationale by an industry or agency, troubling community health pattern) fits into a regulatory framework that other citizens wouldn’t be equipped to see. Often, these citizens are the only people able to inform neighbors, a regulatory body, the press, or an attorney of the problem.  

Conservationists and conservation organizations can form short- and long-term partnerships with attorneys, and of course, many organizations have in-house or consulting attorneys.  Voluminous communications with grassroots clients are often required when attorneys are preparing cases for litigation. Organizations and grassroots citizens commonly collaborate on press releases, media outreach, and more to help give context to the case as it becomes public.  

As environmental laws increasingly consider the social and environmental justice effects of environmentally significant actions, it is good for attorneys to better understand and contextualize the constituency that they are representing. Organizations often host formal and informal meetings with members of the public affected by legal issues, and these events are critical learning opportunities for public interest environmental litigators.  


Below are three of the many stories about grassroots individuals and groups that have made a difference in environmental law. Check them out! 

Think of an outdoors enthusiast or retiree furious about a toxic waste dump as a source of on-the-ground reconnaissance who discovers the issue and brings it to the public sphere. They come bearing something that is essential in any case - the legal “standing” to take the issue to the courts.  They live near it; they hike it; they breathe it; they suffer from the adverse effects.  


Once they get some background on the issues, they may attend meetings held by the government agency in authority.  They’ll meet others.  The real break happens when they get involved with conservation groups or grassroots networks, then they start gathering the conceptual tools to become more effective.  They may even train in something like stream or air quality sampling or migratory bird counts. 

Eventually, some become sentinels who dedicate a great deal of their time and intellectual firepower to an area of environmental advocacy, and thus begin to learn about environmental law.  They may focus on the Clean Air Act, or Environmental Justice, or landfills, but they will work to be as effective as possible. Fortunately, there are statutes that aid in this effort by providing clear legal avenues to influence government decisions and gain standing to sue.  In this respect, they become vital information-gathering and litigation-enabling partners for public interest environmental attorneys. 

The Land Between the Lakes


In the 1960's, the community known as the Between the Rivers was forceably removed by the federal government in a land speculation scam.  Ever since, these people and their descendents have fought hard to ensure that the land they once knew is protected for its wild and scenic values.  A coalition that defies stereotypes continues to bring accountability and better management from the Forest Service......

The Office Was a Gas Station:  Grassroots Activism in Alabama


In the 1990's runaway logging was rampant across the National Forests in the South.  A few locals in the Bankhead National Forest set out to change that....

National Forests and Environmental Economics


For decades, both Congressional and independent research has shown that the National Forest timber program loses money.  Beyond the rote dollars and cents of sale receipts and subsidies lies other costs to the taxpayer and the health of the forest. Environmental economics and citizen oversight is an underrated part of public participation in National Forest Management......

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