The 37th annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) started off a bit slow this year due to the unusually intense snowstorm Eugene experienced last week, but it still brought in over 3,000 attendees from over 50 countries. The University of Oregon houses the four-day conference every year put on Land, Air, Water, the environmental law graduate program and the nation’s oldest and largest student environmental law society.
The 2019 conference featured six keynote speeches, several special events, all-day tabling of various environmental organizations and over a hundred panels discussing environmental problems and sharing solutions. This year’s theme: “Common Grounds.”
“This year’s conference is a little different the way things have evolved with the sense of urgency between the [environmental] tipping points, and we chose speakers around the common ground theme because we wanted a diversity of perspectives and opinions so various groups’ voices are heard,” PIELC Co-Director Shawn Rivera said.
This was Rivera’s first time on the conference organizing team, as the program requires new students to organize the conference each year. A second-year law student himself, Rivera became interested in environmental law after seeing all the environmental issues facing the Middle East while he was stationed there for the US military. He said they wanted to make sure that this year went beyond the more mainstream environmental groups, though popular environmental organizations were also present.
“We felt it was important not to have an echo chamber, and so we wanted to include different perspectives that aren’t a part of the traditional environmental discussion,” Rivera said.
They definitely brought the different perspectives this year, most notably the keynote speech from Norris McDonald, the president of the Center for Environment, Commerce & Energy and the African American Environmental Association. Attendees were handed pamphlets from people protesting McDonald’s views as they entered Straub Hall.
This was a controversial keynote for two major reasons: Firstly, McDonald supports nuclear energy, which is hotly debated in the renewable energy sector. Secondly, he said that he supports African Americans getting into the coal, oil and natural gas industries because they will continue to be profitable, which suggested a major lack of intent to turn the current economic system away from fossil fuels.
McDonald did not think that we would be able to turn around the economy before the climate change tipping points, a realistic yet highly unpopular view amongst the crowd. At points, there were hisses of disapproval and people talking over McDonald.
“The environmental field has historically been somewhat white male-dominated, and we wanted to make sure we were more inclusive of the different voices that are here,” Rivera said.
Both speakers talked about their tribes’ personal experience with environmental law. Descheenie, the Navajo Nation’s director of tribal government relations, spoke of his experience advising the Obama administration to form Bears Ears National Monument. Cordalis, a Yurok Tribe staff attorney, described water rights issues along the Klamath River Basin in Northern California. Both discussed differences in how indigenous people view nature versus western views.
“Water has a name,” Descheenie said in his speech. “It’s no different than yours. It has agency.”
Cordalis got into environmental law after the massive fish die-off in 2002 along the Klamath River, which was caused by lack of water flow from the river being dammed in the name of agriculture years earlier. At that time, she was a cheerleader and political science major at UO.
“I thought to myself, ‘Wow! My great-grandmother would be rolling over in her grave right now, and this is a tragedy and should never happen again.’ And so I decided to go to law school to prevent it from happening again,” she said.
She switched to an environmental studies major at that point and later went to study law in Colorado. In addition to speaking, Cordalis also got the chance to check out several panels on fishing rights this year, which helped continue to grow her understanding on the topic.
Panels ranged from discussing environmental laws in the age of Trump to eating a more environmentally friendly diet. Though it’s organized by the environmental law program, the conference goes far beyond the law perspective.
There were moments of clear Eugenian flare sprinkled in, too — like the Raging Grannies, when tens of brightly dressed, elderly ladies took the stage and performed a mini-musical to explain the proper ways to bring up environmental topics inclusively.
One group of people that PIELC organizers didn’t see as much this year were undergraduate students. While this year’s group won’t be leading next year’s conference, they will push along the idea to further engage the undergraduate demographic next year.
Taylor Herman was one undergraduate that did attend the event. She took away that there was a lack of common ground on a lot of environmental issues.
“I walked away from the conference feeling more division rather than a sense of commonality, which is unfortunate, but this made me realize what I want to be fighting for and how badly I care about the collective survival of all communities and species,” Herman said. “For this reason, I would highly recommend attending this event in the future.”
Amy Daniewicz and Linda Gordon, who came up from Berkeley, California, to represent the nonprofit Impact Fund, found the conference was filled with passionate people. It was the first time either had gone to the conference and they said they collected many ideas to bring back for their own smaller environmental conference.
“I think just seeing the range of cases being brought about a variety of environmental issues is inspiring and exciting to see how much work needs to be done,” Gordon said. “But also how many incredible lawyers, activists, organizers and human beings are dedicated to this cause.”