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January 19, 2006

Excerpts from ‘In the Thick of It: My Life in the Sierra Club’ by Michael McCloskey

In the Thick of It:
My Life in the Sierra Club

by Michael McCloskey

Mike McCloskey. law class of 1961, was the Sierra Club’s first field organizer and its longtime executive director during the rise of the environmental movement. His new memoir gives an insider’s take on these transformative years.

In Chapter I, he talks about his childhood and youth in Oregon, and his experiences at the University of Oregon School of Law 1958-61:

On the forests-
“I was born in Oregon: in Eugene, in 1934, at the bottom of the great Depression. My hometown stood at the head of the Willamette Valley, where the rivers from the mountains joined on the valley floor to flow lazily northward to Portland to meet the Columbia River.

“Eugene then was a town of only 14,000 people, home to the University of Oregon and to a large lumbering business. The slow rains of mild winters nourished great stands of forest on the surrounding hills. Trees were being cut as fast as conditions permitted, but the federal forests farther from town had not been much touched. These old-growth stands of Douglas fir, hemlock, and cedar were among the greatest temperate rain forests that ever existed. More mass of wood was found in the average acre of these forests than in any other in the world.

“Growing up at the edge of these magnificent forests, I took the lumber industry for granted, but I also took the old-growth forests as a given. Only slowly did I come to understand that the one spelled the end of the other. “

On the town and campus, Eugene, Oregon-
“The town of Eugene offered various entertainments to fascinate a child. The premier event was a pageant that was staged periodically at the county fairgrounds to celebrate the pioneers who had settled the country. Old Cal Young, who was born in a pioneer’s cabin, led a parade of townspeople dressed in pioneer costumes. And on campus, every fall for Homecoming, the fraternity and sorority members put colorful displays on their lawns and lit a huge bonfire.

 “The campus at the time was a marvelous playground for kids. I watched WPA workers dig trenches for tunnels to hold steam pipes to heat the university. I dug fossils out of the shale of excavations for university building. I spied on ROTC students who were trying to disguise themselves with camouflage in the nearby woods as World War II began. My friends and I learned to climb along narrow ledges on the sides of university buildings and clamber up and over them…

On law school-
(McCloskey graduated in political science from Harvard in 1956 and signed up for ROTC, where he was appointed to serve as counsel in Special Courts-Martial)

“With this legal experience under my belt, I was looking forward to law school.

“Convinced that I was well suited to be a lawyer, I decided to return to my home state of Oregon, where I was accepted at the University of Oregon’s law school.

“I felt a bit bewildered returning to Eugene as just a student. I had been used to running a substantial operation, with men saluting and opening doors for me . . . Suddenly, I was no one again. What was worse, I was being hazed as a first-year law student, being shown how little I understood.

“And I didn’t like the way the law was being taught at the University of Oregon. The law school then was in transition. Many of its most respected faculty had left. The students were now supposed to learn the law largely through the case method–by analyzing court decisions. Some of the older professors continued to lecture, which I liked, while some of the newer ones were still struggling to learn to use the case method. The method seemed like looking for a needle in a haystack to me. I didn’t yet know enough law to know what I was supposed to be looking for. And the school was using a lot of local attorneys, with little or no teaching experience, as adjunct faculty; these folks struggled even more to find their way in the classroom.
 
“. . . for the first time in my schooling, I was not doing well. I was tempted a number of times to drop out. But I could never figure out a better type of graduate training to pursue. 

“I finally concluded that I wanted to be an advocate, but not just for anyone. I wanted to be an advocate for a cause I believed in. I wanted to shape the law, not just apply and interpret it. While becoming a politician was one way to do that, I could also work for a cause organization . . .

“I asked myself which causes were relevant to the area where I lived. The answer was conservation. Oregon was then all about natural resources and the issues concerning their use and future. Richard L. Neuberger was elected senator in 1954 by championing conservation, and it was evident that conservation was a growing issue in the state…

A law degree might help me work for this cause, I concluded, but I didn’t need to practice law . . .
 
On environmental law-
“Today, the University of Oregon Law School is one of the nation’s leaders in teaching environmental law. But at that time, the field of environmental law did not yet exist. I took all of the public law courses available, but no course on natural resource law was even offered then.
 
“Unguided, I prepared an extended note for the Oregon Law Review on the origins and meaning of the Forest Service’s Multiple-Use Sustained-Yield Act of 1960, which was well received. I argued that the Forest Service’s basic law gave the agency the grounds to preserve the national forests as well as to log them. Oddly enough, the Forest Service took ten years to prepare an answer to my argument. In that article, I also predicted that citizen lawsuits would someday be brought under statues like that. A decade later, I helped make that prediction come true by initiating pioneering legal cases as a leader of the Sierra Club.”
 
-E.S.

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