Law Students Play Key Role in Partnership Between National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, University of Virginia


At a presentation at Morven Farm, first-year law student Andrew Lee explains his research into state water laws and regulations affecting the Klamath Basin that straddles the northern California and southern Oregon border.

May 1, 2012

As part of a new partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the University of Virginia, six interdisciplinary teams of UVA students — including law students — researched some of the nation's most vexing conservation challenges in recent months and laid the groundwork for potential solutions.

The partnership — which is a collaboration between NFWF, the School of Law and the departments of Environmental Sciences and Biology— includes summer internships for UVA students at NFWF project sites, a new master's degree program in conservation biology, and courses taught jointly by foundation staff and UVA faculty members, including Law School professor Leon Szeptycki. (More)

"It's been an amazing learning experience for the students. It was an amazing learning experience for me," said Szeptycki, who is also director of the Law School's Environmental Law and Conservation Clinic. "This is unlike anything else they do in law school. It's interdisciplinary, it's research and it's focused on real-world problems, working closely with the people who are out there on the front lines."

The partnership's inaugural class wrapped up last week with a conference at UVA's Morven Farm, where the students presented the results of their semester-long research projects, all of which were based on ongoing NFWF conservation initiatives. Chartered by Congress in 1984, the independent organization is one of the nation's largest nonprofit funders for wildlife conservation.

During her presentation at Morven, third-year law student Stacee Karras described how her team explored ways to boost live coral reef systems off the shores of the United States and its territories. As part of the project, the team looked at four regions and determined the biggest threats to the local coral, including overfishing in Puerto Rico and Hawaii, invasive lionfish in the Florida Keys, and a lack of needed predatory species in American Samoa, brought about by years of over-fishing.

The partnership, Karras said, reflects the reality that effective environmental policy must be informed by good science.

"The two — scientists and policymakers — must be able to communicate with one another," she said. "This class forces students in both fields to team up and communicate on real conservation issues. It provides insight into what these types of relationships will be like in the real world. It also gives students the opportunity to make a real impact on the issues NFWF has identified as priority initiatives."

Another team of students researched the threats facing the black-tailed prairie dog, jaguar and pronghorn species in the Sky Island region of southeastern Arizona. The students found that the species require "connectivity" to thrive, but are hindered by barriers, such as construction of the border fence between the United States and Mexico.

As part of the team's work, third-year law student Aimee Fausser looked into the laws surrounding construction of the fence. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for constructing the fence, has broad authority to waive environmental laws on the project, she said.

"However, on adjacent land, where there's a lot of impact from illegal immigration and the Border Patrol, they do have to comply with environmental laws," Fausser added. "So I was looking at what could be done under the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act."

Yet another team investigated the environmental challenges facing the Klamath Basin, which straddles the northern California and southern Oregon border.

A member of the team, first-year law student Andrew Lee, researched state water laws regarding the transfer of privately held water rights in-stream for environmental use, essentially to maintain stream-flow levels during dry months.

Lee said the program offered the chance to learn about current environmental and legal issues directly from an established environmental organization.

"This course has given me the opportunity to work on the law for an extended period of time that applied to current issues and produce a product that can be useful for NFWF," he said. "The course offers a nice balance between doctrinal and clinical work."

As part of the program, Lee will intern in NFWF's Portland, Ore., office over the summer.

The foundation, Lee added, "seems to be pioneering a method of methodical conservation that is new and inspiring."

"It has been particularly interesting to get a detailed glimpse into the kind of work that a really organized and well-funded conservation organization does to further its goals," he said.

At the Morven Farm conference, NFWF officials told the gathered students and faculty members that the teams' research and recommendations are already starting to inform the organization's work on its long-term conservation initiatives.

Szeptycki said the course has allowed students to step out of their comfort zone and consider relationships between technical and scientific issues, policy decisions, political considerations, and cultural and legal issues.

"If you think about what conservation is really about, it's all about how people change affect the natural world, and how you change people's behavior – and law is one important component of that," Szeptycki said. "But there are lots of other important pieces as well, so the law students got to work with those aspects of the problem."

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