Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard
It started small 25 years ago: 15 speakers and about 75 environmental lawyers, law students and activists packed into a few lecture rooms at the old University of Oregon law school building. Today it's an international event that attracts thousands.
The annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference celebrates its anniversary next week with an impressive roster of keynote speakers, films and four days of panel discussions of dizzying variety.
While the conference allows environmental activists and lawyers to share information and strategies, it also offers interested citizens the opportunity to learn about issues as diverse as wave energy and urban community gardens.
But 25 years ago, it began as a way of exposing young law students to the area of public interest law, said UO law professor John Bonine, who helped organize the first event with fellow professor Mike Axline and students Jay Manning and Bob Irvine.
Just 3 percent of environmental lawyers work in public interest law, often for small firms challenging business, industry and the federal government to follow environmental laws, Bonine said.
Another 2 percent to 3 percent work for the government, with the rest employed by business and industry, he said. Bonine and Axline wanted students to meet working public interest lawyers. And they wanted the working lawyers to be able to connect with one another, he said.
"That imbalance is so great that public interest lawyers needed a way of meeting each other, of finding someone else who has confronted the same problems," he said.
The conference has grown over the years, expanding from a one-day session to four days with hundreds of panels and speakers. It has spawned similar conferences around the country and has been a seedbed for new efforts.
The Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide - a Eugene-based nonprofit organization that connects lawyers around the world - became a reality after international lawyers at the conference decided they needed to create a network that could serve the same purpose.
In the mid-1990s a group of activists from Tanzania went home from the conference with $1,100 in donations from Eugene. Today, they're a public interest law firm with a $250,000 annual budget, Bonine said.
The conference is organized by law …