Forging a New Path for the Environment

As codirector of the Stanford Institute for the Environment, law professor Buzz Thompson, JD/MBA ’76 (BA ’72) brings together lawyers, biologists, geophysicists, economists, and other experts from around the university to solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental problems.

During the 1977–78 U.S. Supreme Court term, Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson, Jr. clerked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist ’52 (BA/MA ’48). Once a month, Thompson sat down with his fellow law clerks to divvy up the workload. This was the year of the famous Bakke affirmative action ruling, and the other fledgling lawyers in the room were eager to work on the case. Thompson, JD/MBA ’76 (BA ’72) was the exception. He had his eye on TVA v. Hill, an explosive law-suit pitting supporters of the snail darter, a tiny endangered fish, against builders of a nearly complete $80 million dam on the Little Tennessee River.

There were other significant environmental cases on the High Court’s docket that term. One dealt with provisions of the new Clean Water Act; another related to the construction of nuclear power plants. Thompson raised his hand for every one. “I really wasn’t interested in the Bakke decision,” he says now, sitting in his Stanford office. “I wanted to draft the environmental and resources decisions. And I got to work on all of them.”

Since joining the Stanford Law School faculty in 1986 and serving as vice dean from 2000 to 2004, Thompson has shared his enthusiasm for environmental and natural resources law with hundreds of students through his popular courses on property, water law, and natural resources policy. At the same time, he’s worked hard to beef up the law school’s environmental program. Environmental course offerings at the law school have increased threefold from a decade ago, when Thompson was named the Robert E. Paradise Professor of Natural Resources Law. Students are learning more through case studies and practicing what they’ve learned in the thriving Environmental Law Clinic that Thompson helped found.

As Larry Kramer, Richard E. Lang Professor of Law and Dean, puts it, “If Stanford is one of the three schools that can plausibly claim to have the best environmental law pro-gram in the country, that’s because of Buzz. Period.”

Now Stanford President John Hennessy has asked the affable law professor to step beyond Crown Quad to codirect an even more ambitious environmental project—the multimillion-dollar interdisciplinary research center known as the Stanford Institute for the Environment (SIE). Modeled after the university’s massive Bio-X program, which brings physicians, scientists, and engineers together under one roof to solve problems in the life sciences, SIE aims to consolidate and enhance the university’s many existing environmental programs and attract new scholars con-ducting cutting-edge research in the field.

SIE serves as the interdisciplinary catalyst for Stanford’s larger, campus-wide Environmental Initiative, led by Thompson, his fellow SIE director, Jeffrey Koseff, professor of civil and environmental engineering, and School of Earth Sciences dean Pamela Matson. With both a lawyer and an engineer directing its efforts, SIE is well positioned to encourage the collaboration critical to addressing today’s complex environmental issues.

Plans are under way for the $110 million environment and energy building that will house about 40 faculty and 200 graduate students—from marine biologists and petroleum experts to conservation lawyers, geophysicists, and sanitation engineers. In the meantime, Thompson and his colleagues are overseeing an innovative interdisciplinary research grant pro-gram, conducting searches for new endowed professorships, and arranging strategic partnerships with some of the biggest names in environmental science.

As Hennessy told Stanford’s Faculty Senate in April 2004, “Some of our most daunting challenges are environmental ones. . . . Today, over 1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water, and over 2 billion lack access to suit-able sewage treatment systems. At the same time, we are literally changing the face of the planet. Human activities are driving the extinction of species at faster rates than we have ever seen. The world population is expected to grow by several billion people over the next half century, and energy demands are likely to grow even faster. . . . In recent years, we started asking ourselves: Given the university’s great research and education programs, how can Stanford most effectively contribute to addressing these complex problems?”

While Stanford has a long and productive history of environmental scholarship—from biology and earth sciences to environmental engineering, economic environmental policy, and environmental law—the university has lacked the infrastructure to encourage their interplay and growth. SIE is playing a major role in helping interweave and develop environmental scholarship. “This is an enormous undertaking,” Hennessy acknowledged. “But if we are to learn how to live on this planet in an environmentally sustainable way, if we are to leave something to be proud of for our ‘children’s children’s children,’ we must begin.”

Water Wonder

When he was growing up in west Los Angeles in the 1960s, Thompson wasn’t particularly attuned to environmental problems. True, he spent a lot of time hanging out at the beach, and he enjoyed sailing. But like most suburban kids, he said, “I grew up appreciating creature comforts. I had no idea where my water was coming from.” As a Stanford undergraduate, Thompson chose to major in economics. Later, when he enrolled in Stanford Law School’s JD/MBA program, he thought he’d probably become a tax attorney.

The turning point came during his second year of law school, when Thompson signed up for a course in water law given by Professor Charles J. Meyers, who would become dean of Stanford Law School from 1976 to 1981. “I figured water law was probably a course on admiralty law or some-thing of that nature, where you studied things that floated on the water,” Thompson recalled, laughing. “Well, it turned out to be something totally different. As taught by Charlie, it was the most interesting subject I had ever studied.”

Thompson loved water law because it was concerned with a complex, interconnected resource that generated high political tensions, especially in California. It was also an area where a young lawyer could make a difference. Above all, Thompson appreciated its interdisciplinary nature: “You clearly had to understand the politics. You had to think about how you could use economics to improve allocation. You had to understand history—because the history of an area and water resources are intimately linked. And then of course you had to understand hydrology and all of the various sciences surrounding it.”

After his Supreme Court clerkship, Thompson worked on a variety of cases as a litigator for O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles, including securities and tax matters. Yet there was something about the environment and natural resources that kept drawing him back. For a while he taught water law as a lecturer at UCLA. Then, in 1986, Thompson joined the Stanford faculty and started a new course on natural resource development, using the oil industry as a model.

Since that time, Thompson, working closely with other law school faculty and staff, has made it his mission to modernize the way environmental law is taught. One innovation, in 1997, was the establishment of Stanford’s popular Environmental Law Clinic, which gives eight to 10 students each semester hands-on experience providing free legal counsel to real clients, from national organizations like the Sierra Club to grassroots local groups like Voices of the Wetlands and the Coastal Alliance on Power Expansion.

Teaching methods have changed as well. Instead of reading only appellate opinions, today’s environmental law students—about 10 percent of the class—delve into real-life case studies, just as MBA students do over at the Graduate School of Business. And just like real lawyers, they are expected to master complex interdisciplinary subjects quickly.

One of Thompson’s favorite environmental case studies involves the Delhi Sands flower-loving fly, an endangered insect that held up construction of a Southern California hospital in the late 1990s. The assignment: If you had been an assistant solicitor to the Department of the Interior, how would you have advised the Fish and Wildlife Service to deal with this? “Students have to become experts on the biology of the fly before they can talk about this particular case study, and that means they have to read about numbers,” Thompson said. “Ninety percent of law school students are numberphobes. They hate anything that looks like math. But if you’re going to be an environmental lawyer, you have to be reasonably comfortable reading scientific studies.”

Now that Thompson has stepped beyond the law school to build the interdisciplinary Stanford Institute for the Environment, his daily presence on Crown Quad is missed. Yet his boss, Dean Kramer, is convinced that Thompson’s historic appointment (he’s the first law professor tapped to codirect one of the university’s key interdisciplinary pro-grams) will reap rewards for both the school and the planet. Second- and third-year law students, in particular, are flocking to interdisciplinary classes supported by SIE. And Stanford legal scholars are beginning to work much more closely with scientists and engineers who need help translating their good ideas into significant law and policy changes.“

As we try to attract students and faculty who are interested in the environment, our ability to partner with SIE and connect them to the university’s resources in environ-mental studies is going to be a huge attraction,” Kramer predicted. “Of course, we lose some of Buzz’s time, which is unfortunate for the school. As conversations with dozens of alumni have made clear, Buzz is one of our great teachers, and the time he is away with the institute means less time for teaching. In the long run, though, this will benefit students—and just about everyone else. The potential returns of this work to the law school, to the university, and to the world, are genuinely great.”

Ambitious Agenda

Keeping up with Thompson as he darts around campus can be a challenge. Although he maintains an office at the law school, Thompson spends most of his time working out of an inconspicuous portable SIE office building tucked behind Encina Hall, or at various sites across campus—meeting colleagues, potential donors, and job applicants. Groundbreaking for the new, 166,000-square-foot environ-ment and energy building is expected to start in June on the science and engineering quad. If all goes according to plan, Thompson and his staff will be able to move to their new home by December 2007.

In the meantime, there’s a long to-do list. Already, SIE has 250 Stanford faculty on its mailing list and has held meetings with some 25 student organizations, ranging from the Greens at Stanford to the Graduate School of Business Energy Club. Joint searches are under way for new pro-fessorships in environmental anthropology, climatology, resource economics, renewable energy, and global water supply and sanitation. There also are several major academic conferences planned, including one titled “The End of Oil,” and another dealing with congressional reauthorization of the Farm Bill.

On the teaching side, Thompson and codirector Koseff now have responsibility for the Aldo Leopold Leadership Program, which trains 20 early- to mid-career scientists each year to testify before policymakers and communicate more effectively with journalists. They’re hoping to expand Stanford’s existing Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources so that more students can earn master’s degrees in environmental science along with their degrees in law, business, or medicine. They’re also developing a new IEarth undergraduate course series, to be modeled after the IHUM classes that introduce Stanford students to the humanities. “The idea,” Koseff told his colleagues at the Faculty Senate recently, “is to create a suite of really exciting interdisciplinary courses that provide a basic introduction to the environment. Ultimately, we would love it if this was a requirement for all Stanford undergrads.”

On the research side, SIE administers a popular Venture Projects Fund that offers two-year, $75,000 grants for inter disciplinary projects conducted by teams of professors and students who have never worked together before. (See sidebars on pages 26 and 29 for descriptions of two of the projects.) As of last November, SIE had received 39 proposals from 87 faculty mem-bers representing 29 university departments, from chemistry and geophysics to music and pediatrics.

In one study, epidemiologists and microbiologists from the School of Medicine are working with civil and environmental engineers, as well as external partners at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, to devise a monitoring system for detecting cholera and dysentery in coastal waters. Similarly, Carol Boggs, director of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology, is leading an interdisciplinary effort to see whether the endangered Bay checkerspot butterfly can be returned to its former habitat in the Stanford foothills.

Still another project, launched by graduate student Claire Tomkins with the help of management science and engineering professor Thomas Weber and environmental fluid mechanics expert David Freyberg, examines the economic incentives that drive various stakeholders in California’s complex water market. “That’s not an unusual starting point, by the way,” Koseff observed in a recent joint interview with Thompson at the SIE office near Encina Hall. “Students are incredible catalysts for bringing faculty together because they recognize a problem. They don’t see the disciplinary boundaries. They say, ‘I need this knowledge.’ Next thing you know, all these faculty are talking to each other; next thing they’re working together. It’s the pollination effect; I love that.”

Perhaps the most ambitious undertakings at SIE are four strategic collaborations it has formed with outside organizations to devise practical solutions to environmental problems. Among the goals: generating sustainable solutions to global hunger, promoting the next generation of climate change solutions in California, developing energy-efficiency technologies and policies in California, and financing conservation on private lands. A fifth proposed initiative, called the Center for Ocean Solutions, would team scientists from Stanford’s main campus and Hopkins Marine Station, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and other institutions to address critical marine problems like over-fishing and coastal pollution.

“I’m still coming to grips with how to describe the sheer size and importance of each of these collaborations,” Thompson said, paging excitedly through a PowerPoint presentation he uses to describe SIE to alumni. “Take the one on conservation finance. There you have Stanford faculty ranging from biologists to economists to law professors, together with The Nature Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund, looking at the development of 21st-century conservation tools worldwide. Initially we’re going to be working in California, but we’re going on to China and Eastern Africa, too. Each of these collaborations takes a grand theme and the interdisciplinary resources of Stanford, and combines them with the decision makers who are actually going to be utilizing what we’re doing. This in itself is amazing when I think about what we’re trying to achieve.”


One student already reaping the benefits of Thompson’s interdisciplinary work is Peter Morgan, a third-year law student who grew up near New York City. Before coming to Stanford, Morgan ran a Nature Conservancy office on Martha’s Vineyard. As he negotiated habitat preservation deals with local private property owners, he found he was constantly on the phone with attorneys. “I’d been thinking about just getting a master’s in environmental management,” he said, sitting under a brilliant fall sky in the courtyard near the Law Café. “But talking with those lawyers, I realized that law was where the greatest potential lay for environmental protection.” Today, thanks to Stanford’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Environment and Resources, Morgan is working toward a joint JD and master’s in conservation biology—the first Stanford student to do so.

For Morgan, one of the best parts of the interdisciplinary program is the weekly environmental seminar, which brings in speakers on a variety of environmental topics. After each lecture he and his classmates gather to discuss what they’ve heard. “That’s been interesting,” he said, “because we each bring a different strength to the table. Some have a background in biology, some in urban planning, some in economics.” The techie students have taught Morgan a lot about how to read and understand scientific papers. In turn, he’s opened their eyes to potential pit-falls in the regulatory process. “Often they’ll say, ‘Okay, we need a policy change.’ And then I play devil’s advocate and ask, ‘At what level do you want change? Are you talk-ing state, federal, or local government? Who’s going to pay for it?’” They also talk about ways scientists might design their research to better anticipate the questions of policy makers. “Often scientists will say, ‘Here’s a problem,’” Morgan observed. “Yet the way they’ve structured their research doesn’t lend itself to a clear solution.”

Environmental Law Clinic director Deborah Sivas ’87 said she, too, has benefited from interdisciplinary contacts she’s made through SIE. Recently, a nonprofit group asked Sivas if her students might work to promote a statewide ban on lead shot, which has been implicated in the poisoning deaths of several endangered California condors. “I sup-pose I could have found an expert [on condor biology] if I had searched the entire Stanford website,” Sivas said, “but all I had to do was tap into someone I had actually got-ten to know through the institute.” That expert was Page Chamberlain, a professor of geological and environmental sciences whose studies on the condor may prove invaluable as the lobbying effort picks up steam.

Eventually, Sivas would like to expand the Environ-mental Law Clinic so interested students can enroll from any discipline. It’s an idea that Meg Caldwell ’85, director of the law school’s Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program, heartily endorses. She met beach pollution expert Alexandria Boehm, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, at an SIE function two years ago. Today, Caldwell, Boehm, Sivas, and Rebecca Martone, a PhD student from Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station, are coteaching a class on California coastal issues. While the course is cross-listed with the schools of law, engineering, and earth sciences, it has attracted an even greater range of disciplines among those enrolled, including journalism and medicine. Even traditional environmental law courses are going interdisciplinary.

“Over the last couple of years,” Caldwell said, “we have been actively advertising our classes across campus and inviting students from other disciplines to take our classes, so now we’re seeing much more immigration from other disciplines. I hope this trend continues.” The payoff, she said, is that “Stanford environmental law students are leaving more prepared to do what they’re going to be expected to do when they get out of here.”

For some law students and faculty, interacting extensively with scientists and scholars beyond Crown Quad may feel a bit odd at first. Launching SIE has been a challenge for Thompson, too—hustling across campus from meeting to meeting, trying to break down the disciplinary silos into which universities have historically organized themselves, hiring a new generation of interdisciplinary faculty, and immersing himself in the jargon of conservation biologists, civil engineers, business school professors, and geophysicists.

But if Thompson had to do things over again, he’d still raise his hand for the job in a heartbeat. “Once I’m not spending so much time on the administrative side of SIE, I’ll be going to all the law school faculty meetings and lunches and everything of that nature,” he promised. “But I view my world as the whole university, not just the law school. Yes, it’s harder living in an interdisciplinary world than it is living in a purely disciplinary world. But it’s a lot more exciting and productive.”

Preserving the Bay Checkpoint Butterfly

WITH ITS SHADY OAK THICKETS, profuse wildflowers, and protected golden grasslands, Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve would seem to be a perfect habitat for all manner of endangered species. But looks can be deceiving, according to Carol Boggs, consulting professor in the Program in Human Biology and director of the university’s Center for Conservation Biology.

Forging a New Path for the Environment 1
Bay checkerspot butterfly. Photo by John Erlich

Forty years ago, red and black Bay checkerspot butterflies fluttered all over the preserve. Since then, nearby development and changes in the naturally occurring flow of springs have wreaked havoc on the insect and the delicate California native plants on which its caterpillars feed. Today, not a single Bay checkerspot survives on Stanford lands.

That really bothers Boggs and famed population biologist and Stanford professor Paul Ehrlich, who made a career out of studying the dainty insect at Jasper Ridge back in the 1960s. So last year they asked the Stanford Institute for the Environment for a $150,000 grant to study whether it is feasible to bring a colony of the rare butterflies back to the Stanford foothills. Led by Ehrlich and assisted by coprincipal investigator law professor Buzz Thompson, the two-year research project aims to better understand the checkerspot’s history of extinction from Stanford lands, its preferred habitat, and the biological elements that are important to its long-term survival. Since Bay checkerspots are a federally listed endangered species, the researchers also want to know more about any regulatory pitfalls they might encounter along the way.

Forging a New Path for the Environment 2
Bay checkerspot butterfly larva. Photo by John Erhlich

To accomplish all of those varied tasks requires a diverse team of scientists and scholars—the kind of interdisciplinary cooperation that the Stanford Institute for the Environment was created to foster. American history professor Richard White and doctoral student Jon Christensen are hunting for old photographs and field notes that may yield clues about the butterfly’s former range and the impact of land use history on the butterfly.

The Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Department of Global Ecology director Chris Field, geological sciences professor Scott Fendorf, doctoral student Tim Bonebrake, and Boggs have been adding different concentrations of magnesium sulfate to experimental soil plots adjacent to Jasper Ridge and seeding them with native grasses upon which the checkerspot larvae feed, to see if they can chemically re-create the rare serpentine soil-based habitat that Jasper Ridge natives require. Boggs and Bonebrake are hoping to gather samples of DNA from a fairly stable Bay checkerspot population in the hills south of San Jose, to see whether their genetic makeup is close to that of the extinct Stanford population, making them good potential colonists.

For law professor and coprincipal investigator Buzz Thompson, the project is less about biology and more about bureaucracy. Are there federal funds available for reintroduction projects on private land? Will Stanford be allowed to develop its foothill lands in the future if there is an endangered species on the land? If Stanford scientists want to capture and mark the butterflies, or take snippets of their DNA, would there be any regulatory barriers and constraints at the federal, state, and local level? What impact would there be on neighboring property owners if the endangered butterflies flutter over to adjoining property? From the law and policy perspective, “it’s a neat project,” Thompson said. With any luck, the checkerspots will like it, too.—TJ

Encouraging Land Use Conservation

GRETCHEN DAILY (BS ’86, MS ’87, PhD ’92) AND MEG CALDWELL ’85 are both talented Stanford faculty members who care about many of the same things. Daily is a professor of biological sciences who specializes in biodiversity conservation. Caldwell, director of the Environmental and Natural Resources Law and Policy Program, is a land use expert who chairs the California Coastal Commission. So when they first sat down to talk about their research interests over a cup of coffee, following a get-together hosted by the Stanford Institute for the Environment (SIE), they were startled to realize how little they knew about each other’s work.

“I didn’t have as firm of a grasp as I would have liked about Gretchen’s research,” Caldwell recalled, “and neither did she really appreciate how my work naturally intersects with hers.”

Forging a New Path for the Environment
Meg Caldwell, director of the Environmental and Natural
Resources Law and Policy Program. Photo by Misha Bruk.

That’s all in the past now, thanks to a $150,000 grant for a joint study funded by SIE’s Venture Projects Fund. Working with their graduate students, Caldwell and Daily are putting their heads together to come up with innovative strategies to encourage conservation activities on private lands in Hawaii and Costa Rica. As a first step, they’ve written a soon-to-be published paper that will educate conservation biologists across the country about the legal tools they can use in the fight to protect endangered habitats.

As Caldwell explained, “The two primary disciplines, conservation biology and land use law and policy, have a lot to offer each other. But there is very little in the literature for conservation biologists to understand the tools available on the land use side. Our ultimate goal is to generate new approaches that use the best of both disciplines.”

One particularly promising legal tool is transferable development rights, or TDRs. Say a rancher has land near the Kona coast, zoned for one house per 20 acres, that shelters a rich assortment of plant and animal species. Just down the road, there’s a more populated area zoned for five buildings per acre. Using TDRs, the rancher can sell his development rights to the property owners in the second, more populated “receiving zone.” The buyers of the TDRs can then subdivide their land and build at a higher density than would be allowed normally under existing zoning laws. Meanwhile, the rancher receives economic value from his land without having to develop it.

“Up in Tahoe they’ve been using a TDR system to protect highly erosive land from further development,” Caldwell said, “but oddly enough, most biologists still aren’t familiar with the idea.” Ultimately, she’d like to see more cross-pollination going on between law and other disciplines on a regular basis. That way, future lawyers will have a much greater understanding of the science behind their clients’ cases. And scientists will have a much better idea of how to engage and problem solve with large landowners and their attorneys.—TJ