A clinical project undertaken by Jason Steiert, currently a 2L at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, is reaching an audience of lay readers who are interested in the process behind protecting America’s wild rivers. In the interview below, Steiert shares how the project got underway, describes the “immense complexity” of environmental law, and relates how a combination of course work and guidance from Professor Robert Adler proved invaluable in completing the project.
Describe the publication Protecting Outstanding Rivers. Who is the intended audience? How will you gauge its success?
The publication idea came from Merritt Frey, Rivers and Habitat Program Director at River Network. Protecting Outstanding Rivers is designed to help river protection advocacy groups around the country navigate two pieces of federal legislation (the Clean Water Act and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act) in order to protect waterways and water bodies in their state. We chose the two federal acts because the protections granted in each met our three criteria: (1) the protections are legally enforceable, (2) the protections are permanent (or as permanent as policy protections can be), and (3) the protections are specific and targeted to a high level of protection. In all honesty, it will be difficult to gauge success. However, if at least one river advocacy group uses the document to achieve a successful designation, I will call it a success and probably have to visit that waterway!
You wrote the publication as a clinical directed research project at the College of Law. Describe its genesis (e.g., how long did it take, how many sources did you incorporate, what did you learn in the process?).
The publication was part of an internship with River Network during my 1L summer. Because the internship was unpaid, I approached Professor Adler about linking my work with a directed research project for school credit. The goal was to finish the project by the end of the summer. Although it is almost a year later, the publication is in good shape and I was able to explore some case studies that were not part of the paper at the end of the summer.
My sources are many. I leaned on Professor Adler and Merritt to help me understand the mechanics of each act but supplemented their explanations with a healthy serving of legal research (law review articles on the CWA and WSRA, cases that dealt with the pertinent provisions of each act, and the acts themselves). Beyond legal research, I found that targeted searches on the National Wild an Scenic Rivers System and Environmental Protection Agency websites were helpful. I also read numerous news articles to understand how each act plays in the “real world.” A good chunk of the paper is dedicated to case studies. Because Merritt has a network of dues-paying members, she was able to put me in touch with the individuals I interviewed over the phone to develop the case study section.
Perhaps the most interesting experience was seeing the immense complexity of environmental laws in the real world. In contrast, case books usually distill these complex situations into necessary teaching points. Instead of asking what is the “rule” or “holding,” I asked the broader questions of what is the best way to protect a waterbody and how? Also, I learned the importance of gathering a broad and detailed knowledge base before speaking with clients. For example, before I contacted each of the case study participants, I read as much as I could on each designation so that I could ask pointed questions and have a fulfilling discussion. Last, I learned that it is important to remain flexible. The project took longer than originally planned, the publication outline changed several times before and during the writing phase, and the process of gathering information for the case studies took longer than I expected. Without flexibility, any number of these setbacks would have been difficult to handle.
You will shortly be presenting a webinar for river activists around the country. Did you foresee this kind of reach for your research when you started out?
Yes, this was an option Merritt suggested early in the development of the project. The webinar will be an excellent opportunity to work on explaining, verbally, the complexity of these federa acts and to answer questions.
What are your career goals? Did this project’s success have any effect on your plans?
My goal is to remain involved in environment and natural resource law throughout my legal career. I think both areas of law are intellectually stimulating and impact every day life from the gas in your car to the air you breath and the water in your fossett. This project solidified my desire to practice environment and natural resource law.
How did your course work and clinical directed research work at the College of Law prepare you for this project?
I took on this project as a doe-eyed 1L. At that point I had no course work that would have helped me with the substantive law. However, first year legal writing class helped me to hone my technical writing skills as well as develop an infinity for short, declarative sentences in my professional writing. Last fall, I took several natural resource and environment-related courses that helped me to edit the paper with a keen eye. The directed research aspect was rewarding. I wrote and fulfilled a directed research proposal, got a chance to work more closely with Professor Adler, and became familiar with two important pieces of federal legislation.