The Forest and the Fisher

Clinic Students encourage protection of California forests by highlighting the plight of an endangered mammal known as the Pacific fisher

The Forest and the Fisher

Stanford Law School Environmental Law Clinic students Sidni Frederick and Christopher Meyer, both JD ’22, have never seen a Southern Sierra Nevada Pacific fisher, a critically endangered, geographically isolated, and genetically unique relative of minks and otters that lives in the Sierra, Sequoia, and Stanislaus National Forests.    “Very few people have,” Meyer explains. “They’re very secretive critters.”   Nevertheless, early next year, Meyer and Frederick will stand before a panel of judges on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to argue on the Pacific fisher’s behalf in a case that pits conservationists against U.S. federal agencies that think the best way to mitigate the risk of wildfires—which have intensified under the effects of climate change—is to cut down the trees that form the Pacific fisher’s habitat.

In the case, Meyer and Frederick, under the direction of Environmental Law Clinic Director and Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law Deborah A. Sivas, JD ’87, and Clinical Supervising Attorney Matthew J. Sanders, JD ’02, represent Unite the Parks, a nonprofit organization that aims to connect biologically important landscapes, including through conservation of the Pacific fisher and the curtailment of logging activities.

Students in the Environmental Law Clinic learn how to become lawyers: They meet with clients, opposing counsel, and agency officials; write briefs; present arguments in court; and develop advocacy and policy strategies. Species protection is just one of several priorities for the clinic, which Sivas launched in 1997. The students’ work also includes efforts to preserve and keep accessible California’s coastline, to protect sacred sites for Native American tribes, and to conserve and improve water resources around the state. In addition, the clinic is ramping up its racial and environmental justice work, recently hiring Stephanie Safdi as clinical supervising attorney to spearhead such projects.

Among other claims in the Pacific fisher case, the clinic argues that the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service violated the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by failing to properly evaluate the impact of proposed projects in the Pacific fisher’s habitat, failing to properly consider the effects of drought and the devastating 2020 wildfires on the Pacific fisher’s habitat, and failing even to accurately estimate the size of the current Pacific fisher population (the clinic argues that  the data the agencies rely on for population estimates is at least a decade old).

After a hearing last spring, at which Frederick and Catherine Rocchi, JD/MS ’22, appeared and argued, an Eastern District of California federal judge denied the clinic’s motion for a preliminary injunction, setting up the pending Ninth Circuit appeal.

“Ideally, if we’re successful at the Ninth Circuit, the case gets remanded with orders to grant the preliminary injunction in our favor,” Frederick says. But even if the Ninth Circuit declines to reverse the trial court’s decision, the case will still proceed on the merits through the normal course of litigation.

The survival of the Pacific fisher is, of course, a worthy cause on its own. But the significance of the case goes beyond just one species. Until political leaders enact—or even agree on—policy changes that can protect the environment and wildlife from the effects of climate change, attorneys must rely on environmental statutes like ESA and NEPA to do that work.

The Pacific fisher “is the legal way into court,” Sivas says. “But really what the case is about is trying to force the Forest Service to look seriously at protecting what’s left of these forests. We’re not going to log our way out of wildfires.”

ESA and NEPA, Meyer says, are some of the “strongest environmental protection statutes in the world.”

“Their protections are stringent enough such that you can make meaningful change or at least fight a rearguard action as long as you can against the collapse of ecosystems,” he says.

As Frederick explains, the Pacific fisher is like “an indicator species.”

“It makes sense to look at certain species not just for the value they have themselves but also as representative of the health of the ecosystem they rely on,” she says.

Meyer and Frederick—who were enrolled in the Environmental Law Clinic full time as 2Ls and are now working part time as advanced students on the Pacific fisher case—both came to Stanford Law School with the dream of litigating environmental cases. The chance to do that work while they are still students has been incredibly valuable, they say.

“I was really looking for an experience to feel like I was getting my hands dirty, to have an effect out in the real world,” Frederick says.

Meyer agrees.

“I came to law school wanting to do this,” he says. “I never really wanted to do anything else.” SL

Rebecca Beyer is a former staff writer and editor for the Daily Journal.