The End Of and Era– Wildlaw No More

Ray Vaughn, sometime contributor to this blog, has announced (in the letter which follows) that his organization Wildlaw, will soon cease to exist.  After many successful suits against the Forest Service, Ray decided a few years ago that, as much fun as suing and winning might be, it might be more satisfying to work cooperatively on ecological restoration projects.  Ray was able to put aside past  name-calling and even death threats (not from the Forest Service!) to collaborate with those who he had often opposed in the past.  His work with the National Forests in Alabama and elsewhere in the South stands as a model for collaboration in the management of public lands.

Good luck, Ray.  You would have made a great Undersecretary!

Dear Friends:

Many of you may have heard rumors about the future of WildLaw and what is happening with our organization.  Due to tough economic times drying up all our major funding sources and due to some other factors, WildLaw, quite simply, has no future; the organization is done and wrapping up operations.  WildLaw will cease operations on May 31, 2011, and after 25 years of public interest legal work, I am retiring.  This memo contains my thoughts and reflections on what an incredible journey WildLaw and I have had.

First, some details: WildLaw will close its Alabama and North Carolina offices on May 31.  Our Southern Forests Network program, headed by Alyx Perry, will continue on as a separate organization. Our Florida Office, headed by Brett Paben for more than a decade, has secured some independent, Florida-specific funding and will also continue as a separate organization.  As a legal entity, WildLaw will technically continue to exist for some time due to tax filing timing reasons, laws and regulations about retention of legal case documents, trademark and copyright reasons, and the like.  But, barring some miraculous change in its financial fortunes, it will not be an operational organization after May 31 and will be only a shell until such time as those various laws allow me to unincorporate it finally. And due to health reasons and a need for me to focus on finding a way to still be here for my family as my children enter their college years, I am retiring from the practice of public interest law.

WildLaw may now be done, but it has not failed.  Just because something ends does not mean it has failed, even if it ends sooner than you had thought it should or would.  After all, everything ends; every life ends.  Every human endeavor must end also.  WildLaw has been a success beyond my greatest hopes when I founded it.  That success remains, even if WildLaw will not.  I am sad to see the end of WildLaw and my work as a public interest attorney, but I do not regret what has happened.  The journey I have been on for the past 25 years has been incredible, a wonderful dream.  But even the best dreams end when one awakens to a new day.

Even a brief listing of some of WildLaw’s accomplishments is astounding and humbling for me.

  • More than 24,000,000 acres of public lands have been given increased protections due to our work.
  • Working on species as diverse as white-tailed deer to the rarest fish, birds and animals in the world, WildLaw has increased protections and led to better management for more than 135 species directly, and countless hundreds indirectly.
  • More than 2,000 miles of rivers, streams and coastal areas are cleaner.
  • More than 1,500,000 acres of public lands were protected from unwise oil and gas development.
  • Projects planning more than 500,000 acres of illegal and unsound logging on our public forests were stopped, and more importantly, more than 2,000,000 acres of scientifically-sound ecosystem restoration work was started on those public lands that need it.
  • We played a critical role in helping small loggers in the South who do good, ecologically-sound logging find work in the forests and markets for their timber, with WildLaw becoming the first nonprofit of our type in the South to become FSC certified.
  • Over the years, WildLaw played a critical role in helping to move the U.S. Forest Service from a management scheme of prioritizing commercial extraction to a paradigm of ecological restoration and conservation. While still ongoing, this historic and sweeping shift in agency policy and attitude started in Alabama, of all places, and I am very proud of the many great people in the agency with whom we have worked to help make this change happen.
  • More than 35,000 people of low-income, mostly-rural, under-represented communities throughout the South have been given a voice and a chance at a cleaner environment because of our environmental justice work.

WildLaw’s great success has been due to many, many people.  I cannot thank all of them here, but I will single out a few in particular.  I want to give my thanks to:

  • All our incredible staff.  Over the years, some 45 people have worked for WildLaw, and all of our success has been due to their passion, commitment and skill.  Special thanks to Steve, Brett, Jeanne, and Alyx, who led our various offices and programs for so many years.
  • All of our supporters.  Nonprofit work may not make a profit but it still must pay the bills to do the work.  All the people, groups and foundations who funded our work over the years share in all our success and accomplishments.  Special thanks to our most steadfast and understanding of funders, including Fred Stanback, Patagonia, Stuart Clarke and the Town Creek Foundation, the National Forest Foundation, The Moriah Fund, and the Mennen Environmental Foundation.
  • All our clients.  WildLaw has worked with more than 250 environmental and community groups of all sizes and thousands of individuals who fight for a better world instead of a quick buck.  All of you are inspirations, and it has been a high honor to represent you and make your cause our cause.
  • All our partners.  Fighting to make the world a better place can be a lonely trail at times, but to find other people and groups who will fight alongside you makes a big difference.  There is strength in numbers, and many can do more than just one or a few.  Because with environmental protection work being so much more than just litigation, often many of our clients were also partners in our conservation work outside the courtroom.  Many fellow attorneys and legal organizations worked with us over the years.  Thanks to all of you, and I am sorry that we will not be there with you in the future.
  • All our honorable opponents.  Too many times in this day and age, it is customary to demonize those with whom you disagree or who have different interests and goals.  Fighting for reasonable environmental protections is hard enough, but to have those who disagree with you also demean, insult or literally try to hurt you makes it so much worse.  I lost count of the death threats I have received over the years, and our offices were broken into five times.  In light of the evil thrown at us by some, I truly appreciate all the opposing counsel, corporate staff and government officials who were professional and kind, even in midst of strong disagreement on how to address an issue.  We are all human beings, not demons and angels, and I am grateful for the opponents who remembered that, and especially those who helped me to remember that.  Some whom I opposed in court became friends in person, and I am very thankful for those friendships and all that I have learned from these exceptional people.
  • All the special people inside and outside of WildLaw who made this work possible.  This includes: our longtime Board President and inspiration Lamar Marshall.  Sara O’Neal, for invaluable help in getting WildLaw set up and then funded during tough times.  Rick Middleton and all the folks at the Southern Environmental Law Center for blazing the eco-legal trail in the South, the mentoring, the co-counsel work in important cases and even for the friendly rivalry we had at times.  Ned Mudd for the friendship, guidance and grounding.  Dave Foreman, who believed in me when almost no one else did. Mark Rey, who epitomizes the best in professionalism, intelligence, wisdom and friendship.
  • Most especially, thanks go to my wife, Louise.  Without her, I would have had no reason to fight for a better world, and without her support, understanding and quiet counsel, WildLaw would have never happened and succeeded like it did. Thanks also to my children, Ned, Trey and Beth, who always told me how cool a dad I am because of the work I do and who always gave me encouragement instead of the typical reaction a father gets when talking to his kids about his work.  Also, many thanks to my Mom, Betty Vaughan, who supported me and WildLaw, despite all her worrying.
  • Finally, and at the risk of sounding corny, but so what, thanks be to God.  Everything in life is a gift, and WildLaw and this work have been gifts beyond measure. I know too many attorneys and people in other professions whose work is a chore, nothing more than a means to make money to do the things they would rather be doing.  Working to protect the environment and help people live better lives are all I have ever wanted to do.  Unlike so many people, I got to do what I wanted; it was not easy and ultimately I had to create the job I wanted.  But, as Thoreau said, I got to live the life I dreamed by doing work that had real meaning.  My work this past quarter century has been a true gift, a blessing, a mission, a passion, and a meaningful life for which I am very grateful. If I have made a difference in this world, it is because God has made a difference in me, and with me.

So, once again, many thanks to all of you whom I have worked with and for these many years.  I am sure we will see each other from time to time, especially if I ever get that experimental brain surgery I need (but my insurance will not pay for).  See, for all those who ever wondered whether I was “not right in the head” for doing this work, you were right.

Feel free to share this with anyone you like.

God bless you all,

Ray Vaughan

Founder and Executive Director


“Your bridges are burning now.

“They’re all coming down;

“It’s all coming ‘round.”

–         Foo Fighters

8 thoughts on “The End Of and Era– Wildlaw No More”

  1. Ray’s work and his approach to resolving environmental conflicts reminded me of this story by someone who spent some time in Alabama.

    I think I mentioned before that sometime ago my brother and I were driving one evening to Chattanooga, Tennessee, from Atlanta. He was driving the car. And for some reason the drivers were very discourteous that night. They didn’t dim their lights; hardly any driver that passed by dimmed his lights. And I remember very vividly, my brother A. D. looked over and in a tone of anger said: “I know what I’m going to do. The next car that comes along here and refuses to dim the lights, I’m going to fail to dim mine and pour them on in all of their power.” And I looked at him right quick and said: “Oh no, don’t do that. There’d be too much light on this highway, and it will end up in mutual destruction for all. Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.”

    Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights, and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights. And if somebody doesn’t have sense enough to turn on the dim and beautiful and powerful lights of love in this world, the whole of our civilization will be plunged into the abyss of destruction. And we will all end up destroyed because nobody had any sense on the highway of history.

    Somewhere somebody must have some sense. Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody. Somebody must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate and the chain of evil in the universe. And you do that by love.”

    Amen to that. “Somebody got to have some sense on this highway.” Here’s the link to the rest of the sermon.

  2. This is excellent news. It is good to know that ta least one of the organizations who have caused so much damage to our forests and rangelands and rural communities via their self-centered litigious activities have lost their ability to continue being funded by US taxpayers. These types of organizations have caused billions of dollars worth of damage to our nation, resources, industries, families, and communities already, and now people are becoming aware of what they have done.

    The recent restrictions on ESA actions regarding gray wolves and now the folding of the Wildlaw tent are, hopefully, signs of better things to come. Passive management and resource management via opportunistic lawyers and the courts has been a massive failure at far too great a cost to too many families, forests, and native wildlife species during the past 30 years, and maybe now the pendulum is swinging back toward a more common sense approach toward resolving these problems.

    The “successes” of Wildlaw are, of course, in the eyes of the beholder. In this instance we are being given a self-congratulatory list by a lawyer who has made a career of destroying the lives, communities, forests, and grasslands of others. And now he is able to send his kids to college by having done so. wow. Impressive. I’m glad it’s ended. Hopefully, more of these types of outfits will follow this lead.

    • This is excellent news.

      You obviously are not actually familiar with Ray’s work. Thanks to the willingness of people like Ray to work cooperatively with the national forests in the South, Region Eight harvests more timber, restores more acres of ecosystems, and accomplishes more acres of prescribed burning than any other Forest Service Region. That is a good thing for forests, wildlife, families, communities, and taxpayers. True, the transition to this model was rocky at times, but real change is rarely easy. There will always be folks here who long for a return to the good ‘ole days, but most are more inclined to continue looking to the future. You should consider a visit with some of the involved parties in Alabama or Florida. You might pick up a few ideas that could work in your part of the country.

  3. And you could look at Ray’s work for the national roadless advisory committee (RACNAC). This country and the world need more people like Ray, who can put aside ideological fervor, power and self-righteousness, and put themselves on the line in service to the common interest. IMHO.

  4. Bob’s fact-less rant shows how forest management through ignorance will always fail. WildLaw did NOT receive its litigation funding from taxpayers; what little taxpayer funds we did receive (less than 5% of our budget over the past five years) was FOR increasing logging on National Forests by helping small loggers and mills in the southeast gain certification. WildLaw lost its litigation program and other funding from individual donors and foundations BECAUSE we work WITH the Forest Service and loggers to INCREASE restoration logging on the public forests. The big environmental funders DO NOT want to fund cooperation and progress. They WANT to fund litigation and conflict; it is much more sexy than reasonable management that gets no headlines. When we showed that litigation has its limits and that cooperation must come out of it for the benefit of the land AND the people who work there, major enviro groups attacked us (worse than Bob’s feeble effort) and got many of our funders to quit funding us. WildLaw’s demise means only that Bob will get MORE of what he despises. Those “opportunistic lawyers” he hates are actually getting increases in funding from the foundation world.

    The enviro litigators who refuse to cooperate with the agency and loggers on doing management RIGHT won out over those of us who believe in reason, science and treating people with respect. Like all other unreasonable attacks on people who value some things more than a quick dollar, Bob’s ignorant screed will be used by those who opposed WildLaw’s work of restoration and cooperation to support more money for the endless litigation he dislikes. And, yes, some of those people read this blog. Bob’s attack on WildLaw helps to prove to these people that they were right to torpedo WildLaw, that cooperation only emboldens those who want to liquidate the forests for a quick profit and that endless litigation is the only thing that can stop “land rapers” like Bob from destroying the public forests. Bob’s rant plays right into their hands, and thus, Bob is helping those whom he wants to fail; he makes their jobs easier and makes them more likely to succeed. I guarantee that upcoming funding requests from some of those groups to foundations will include quotes from Bob here.

    Good job, Bob. Ignorance is bliss. And that ignorant bliss destroys public forests and the wildlife and jobs that depend on them. Good job!

  5. Hmmmm. Nothing like ad hominem attacks to make a point. So far as WildlAw’s ability to work with National Forests, how about their lawsuits that shut down Alabama’s loggers and millworkers (that they bragged about):

    Charity Navigator gives them two stars (of four) for their money management skills (maybe helping to explain their loss of legitimate funding sources):

    I am not a big fan of ESA (I think it has caused far more harm than good), and strongly disagree with WildLaw’s self-serving definition of “forest restoration” (my former business did about 80,000 acres of reforestation, I have personally planted more than 2 million seedlings, and my PhD is in the study of forest history). Other than that, you have done a fair job of characterizing my perspectives.

    I have also been the Program Manager for a nonprofit 501 c(3) for 14 years and am not so easily fooled when it comes to tax exemptions as a form of taxpayer subsidy.

    “Progress” is in the eye of the beholder. Litigious methods of persuading others to follow one’s own vision are not necessarily admirable. To say that my driving force is a “quick dollar” is both presumptive and ignorant. Anyone who knows me would laugh at such assertion. To call me a “land raper” is idiotic. And inaccurate.

    Yes, I am being defensive, but no, I am not being apologetic. These types of attacks on my integrity are the very types of tactics I abhor and am opposed to.

    Thank you, WildLaw, for verifying my assertions.

  6. Bob, you are good at the ad hominem attacks. Congrats. Amazing how a forum like this gives equal time to those who work their asses off for a better world and those who engage in self-righteous masturbation.

    BTW, WildLaw had a a four-star Charity Navigator rating for many years and only lost the rating as funding dropped and Charity Navigator started receiving complaints about us from other enviros. Charity Navigator has recently admitted that their rating system did not match reality and they are revamping it. Your reliance on them tells me much about you and how you elevate convention over innovation.

    I did not call you a “land raper.” I made a point of how others, the ones you really despise, will characterize you that way, and you play into their hands. Pay attention. You have lost a potential ally in your fervor to lump all those whom you dislike into one basket. Sad.

    Good luck and God bless you.

  7. Ray:

    Very condescending. Thank you for the compliment. Yes, it is true that I lump everyone who takes to the courts to impose their wills and billings on rural industries and families into the same basket. Cats and dogs. Same thing.

    Personally, I have planted over two million seedlings (took me 20+ years) with my own hands, hired (and paid) dozens of rural residents livable wages to support their families over an even longer period of time for doing similar reforestatioon work on tens of thousands of acres, and returned to school in my 40s order to get a PhD in forest science to help put an end to land management by lawyers (still working on that one). If that constitutes a “land raper,” then thank you very much.

    My career is over 45 years in length at this time, and all focused on making our forests and families safer and healthier. Could care less how those I “despise” (your word) will “characterize me,” and not sure I need a lawyer as an “ally” on my team. Yet.

    Good luck and God bless YOU, sir. And with the same level of sincerity.


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