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!
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,
Founder and Executive Director
“Your bridges are burning now.
“They’re all coming down;
“It’s all coming ‘round.”
– Foo Fighters