The Western Environmental Law Center uses the power of the law to safeguard the public lands, wildlife, and communities of the American West in the face of a changing climate. We envision a thriving, resilient West, abundant with protected public lands and wildlife, powered by clean energy, and defended by communities rooted in an ethic of conservation. WELC works close to the ground, with offices in Oregon, Washington, Montana, and New Mexico. As a public interest law firm, WELC does not charge clients and partners for services, but relies instead on charitable gifts from individuals, families, and foundations to accomplish our mission. WELC integrates national policies and regional perspective with the local knowledge of our 185+ partner groups to implement smart and appropriate place-based solutions.
Our HistoryIn the early 1970s, with the Cuyahoga River aflame in downtown Cleveland and the toxic Love Canal unearthed in New York, Congress passed and President Nixon signed our bedrock environmental laws to protect clean water and air, to address the hazards of toxic substances and the industrial legacy of using our lands and waters as disposal sites for these poisons, to protect our most at risk plants and animals, and to require all federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of their decisions. A unique, and critical provision of these laws was the right for everyday people to enforce them against violators.
Out West in 1976, two environmental law professors at the University of Oregon, Mike Axline and John Bonine, added a clinical program to the school’s curriculum. They used these laws and the citizen suit provision to provide free legal representation to grassroots conservation organizations across the American West. By the early 1980s, the clinic was stopping Air Force bomber flights over ranches and wilderness areas, forcing disclosure of toxic chemicals in household products, and holding polluters accountable to the law.
However, the clinic’s relationship with the University of Oregon was forever changed in 1987 when its law students, together with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, challenged Oregon timber sales to protect the endangered northern spotted owl.
In response, the timber industry launched an unprecedented attack on the University of Oregon Law School’s academic freedom. Through industry allies in the Oregon legislature, a resolution was introduced to close down not just the environmental clinic, but the entire law school, if the clinic was not disbanded. In 1993, the environmental law clinic voluntarily moved off campus and became the Western Environmental Law Center.