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Law school seminar spotlights resource management issues


July 09, 2008

Students at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College recently spent five days exploring public lands and waterways in northern Arizona during a field seminar that added meaning to what they’d learned in the classroom last fall.

Professor Joe Feller led the five students in the Natural Resource Law Field Seminar to Glen Canyon Dam, the Kaibab Plateau, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and Mount Trumbull, located north of the Grand Canyon, in May.

The group was accompanied by professor Bret Birdsong of the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and several UNLV law students.

The group focused on natural resource management issues, involving water, rangelands and forests.

“The idea is to give them in-depth knowledge of the issues that they study in class in an abstract sense and of the laws applicable to natural resource management,” says Feller, who has offered the seminar for about 15 years. “You can’t understand how these laws work without some on-the-ground contact.”

No trip is ever the same, Feller says, pointing to a photo he took May 22 of fat snowflakes falling on the group. This year and last, the group viewed the devastation of a large wildfire on the Kaibab Plateau and talked about resulting resource management challenges. This year, they took a boat trip on the Colorado River, and discussed lawsuits and plans that have changed how the water is managed.

“The major water issue in the seminar is the flow, quality and temperature of the water of the Colorado River throughout the Grand Canyon, and how they affect wildlife – especially fish – in the canyon,” Feller says. “Regarding timber, the Kaibab Forest has most of the Southwest’s largest remaining stands of old, uncut trees, and the question is, ‘How are these going to be managed, and how does that affect wildlife, primarily birds?’ ”

The students also explore management of ranges and how government plans affect livestock grazing, he says.

“I see a greater appreciation in our students,” Feller says. “It’s more of a citizen education than a career path for them, because there aren’t a lot of jobs in public-lands management. Philosophically, it’s part of a well-rounded education for them to understand the regulation of public lands, because they are part owners of the land.”

The seminars have led to a major writing project for Feller, whose article, “Collaborative Management of Glen Canyon Dam: The Elevation of Social Engineering Over Law,” will be published this summer in the Nevada Law Journal.

Feller’s partners in the seminars are the Arizona Game and Fish Department and employees of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey. Private partners include employees of the Grand Canyon Trust and the Museum of Northern Arizona.

These agencies have provided manpower, funding and materials. Years ago, Arizona Game and Fish gave Feller a grant for expenses and loaned them its cabin for participants’ lodging. More recently, the seminar has been funded through proceeds of a lawsuit Feller and the National Wildlife Federation won in 2005 against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over management of a wilderness area in western Arizona.

“I’m always thankful and apologetic to the agencies that help us,” Feller says. “We invite ourselves up there, and we have criticisms about how they are managing the land. The students and I come with a lot of questions, and the agencies have been very tolerant of that. And the BLM continues to host us, even though I sued them.”

One of Feller’s associates is Rick Miller, a wildlife habitat program manager for Arizona Game and Fish who, years ago, suggested that the seminar be expanded to include timber issues in addition to water and grazing. Miller says the seminar is unique among law schools, and that it’s beneficial to students and wildlife managers.

“I expect some of these students over the years will be involved in politics, writing laws, and working for the state or the federal government, and having them knowledgeable about these issues will help keep them from going to the back burner,” Miller says. “The benefit of Joe’s program to natural resources is that the more information that people making the decisions have, the better these decisions should be.”