Ray Vaughan, an environmental lawyer, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am executive director of WildLaw.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
WildLaw is a nonprofit environmental law firm that represents hundreds of community, environmental, and conservation organizations around the country. We work mainly in the Southeast, but occasionally we take cases in other parts of the country or with national scope. For every case that sets a national precedent, there are a thousand special places that need enforcement of the precedent. WildLaw strategically builds legal capacity for the people defending those places.
There is no perfect world, no best-case scenario, no mission accomplished; there is only the world, the scenario, the mission. Life is about struggle. Those who do not struggle do not live. The struggle, the striving for something better with some success, is the best-case scenario. Of course, too many people are condemned to do nothing but struggle, without any improvement or hope. That is the worst-case scenario, and it is all too common, and inexcusable, in a world with so many resources.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
I read a lot of difficult, boring environmental analysis documents, cases, regulations, laws, legal briefs, administrative records, etc. I then write a lot of difficult, boring documents in response to those. Occasionally, I deal with the personnel, finance, and other administrative duties required by running an organization with a $600,000-a-year budget and offices in five states. Then I go home to see what my kids did that day and spend some time with them and my wife. After the kids go to bed, I often walk three to six miles, listening to music.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
I have always been drawn to the outdoors and finding both natural beauty and existential meaning in it. As a kid, I spent much time hiking and knocking around in local woods and streams, such as they were. In college, I studied religion, philosophy, and natural resources and went backpacking, spelunking, and canoeing. I went to law school because it was all I could get into and get my dad to pay for, so I went to the cheapest one I could get into. Drank through law school with plans to be an environmental lawyer, but there were no real environmental protection jobs in law in Alabama. So, instead of moving to another state to find a job, I created my own.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
Ten. I get an average of 75 emails a day. It used to be close to 200, but I got off a list that had lots of static, irrelevant messages on it, and that eliminated about 75 useless emails a day. I then learned how to use spam filters well; that got rid of most of the 50 spam messages I got each day. The rest is work-related email, and I try to be very diligent in filtering, reading, and responding to what I get as soon as I can.
Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?
It is a tie between government bureaucrats who use their positions to fight progress and open government and certain “holier than thou” people in environmental organizations who think their ideas, policies, and positions are perfect and beyond question.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Many second-level officials in the Bush administration are some of the nicest, most professional and helpful people I have ever met in my life. I am talking about the undersecretaries and assistant secretaries and the folks who work with them. Despite major differences in policy and the fact that we sue them more than just about anyone, most of those people still take my calls and bend over backward to help us on issues where we are not in conflict or litigation. I could not get people at the same level of the Clinton administration to return my calls or emails, but these folks in the Bush administration will always talk to me and even go out drinking with me. That friendliness doesn’t stop me from suing them when I think they broke the law, but they never take it personally (I also never make such cases personal), and they will gladly split a couple bottles of wine with me any time.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Birmingham, Ala. Montgomery, Ala.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
I never had one. I have been an active environmentalist since the earliest I can remember, which is age 4.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
Every time I lose a case, even if I expected it, it is the worst for me professionally. Unlike lawyers just suing for money or defending money, when I lose, something unique and special goes away forever. On a personal level in my professional life, the worst moment was when this very bad federal judge nodded to his court reporter, who then stopped taking a transcript of the hearing we were in, and proceeded to curse the hell out of me — that damn Clean Water Act, those commie, liberal clients of mine, etc. When I protested that he was breaking the law, he threatened to throw me in jail for contempt. I shut up, and not surprisingly, he ruled against us.
What’s been the best?
Having a crowd of 1,600 people in a high school gymnasium in rural Alabama give me a standing ovation when I was introduced to them as the lawyer for a rare fish in their community. I don’t know of any other lawyer who has had a reception like that. To those people, protecting that fish meant protecting the local stream that was the fish’s only habitat in the entire world. Most of them were baptized in that stream and it was where all of them recreated. Protecting that stream meant protecting their community. The stream and fish were threatened by a huge prison, which would have caused massive sediment and other pollution, choking the stream and killing the fish. We stopped the prison, and by “we,” I mean the community, which did a great job of organizing and fighting the problem on all fronts. The lawsuits I filed and me as the attorney helped, but I did not win the cause for them. They won it.
What’s on your desk right now?
Too much paper, a few DVDs and CD-ROMs with various videos, studies, reports, and other enviro documents on them, my computer and handheld computer, an XM radio, a photo of my three children (aged 10, 8, and 6), half a can of Dr. Pepper, and a .357 Magnum revolver. Wait … now an empty can of Dr. Pepper.
What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?
Clinton’s signing the “salvage” rider into law.
Who is your environmental hero?
Who is your environmental nightmare?
He’s from Texas but lives in D.C. right now.
What’s your environmental vice?
Too many to count, including steaks, beer, whiskey, air conditioning, etc. To me, to be a person who is good (whether for the environment, human rights, whatever), the secret is not to minimize to the extreme each and every impact in each and every area of your life. Folks who do that turn themselves into boring prudes who still adversely impact the earth. Living a good life and being a good person means, overall, doing more good than harm and always striving to make things better.
How do you get around?
I have two vehicles, a Honda Pilot SUV (25 mpg) that I use for getting into the woods for reviewing timber sales and the like and for driving the kids around, and a Honda Insight hybrid (68 mpg) that I use for long road trips. We have no public transportation in the part of town where I live and barely any bus service in Montgomery at all, but I was the one who headed the civic committee that crafted a plan to bring passenger rail service back to Montgomery. Of course, that is sitting on a shelf downtown.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Grilled-cheese sandwiches and cheese grits.
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Yes — from the Internet (Common Dreams, Wall Street Journal, European and African websites, and all our state’s local newspaper websites) and radio (NPR and XM stations).
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
I will never tell anyone my favorite place specifically, but more broadly, it is the Bankhead National Forest in northwest Alabama.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would tax the hell out of pollution and other environmentally destructive actions.
Who do you think (not hope) is going to be elected president in November?
Kerry. Maybe John Kerry can defeat George Bush, maybe he cannot. But one thing is for sure: Bush can defeat Bush. And so far, W. is doing a great job of it.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Yes, I would, if for no other reason than because it pisses off people who hate environmentalists when we are proud of the label, since they have been able to scare some people away from it. It means I am part of the environment and care about more than just money. I don’t care what baggage it brings (it does, but I don’t care). Too many environmentalists think that they have to be overly nice, which to them seems to mean wimpy. We need to be more like Teddy and speak softly but carry a big stick, not just speak softly and do nothing else. And, of course, the corollary to that rule is to use the stick occasionally. Then there are those environmentalists who speak harshly all the time, but they have no stick. They are equally ineffective. It is okay to be nice to our opponents; we don’t have to trash people personally because we dislike what they do, but that does not mean giving in to them. The best and nicest thing we can do to people who hurt the environment is defeat them; it will be good for them.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Why we are here and what we are. We spend so much time on the minutiae of specific issues or projects, we forget to ponder the overarching meaning of it all. If we became better grounded in why we are here, we would know better what to do while we are here. We work forever on stopping something bad, but we so rarely ask, “Why would someone want to destroy something beautiful or ruin people’s lives just to make some money?” “Why do we all prefer to do things the easy way instead of the right way?” “What is my life really supposed to mean? What is the polluter’s life supposed to mean?” How do we get the people we fight to also ask those same questions themselves? Deep, deep, deep stuff. After all, our life is our environment and our environment is our life. What does it all mean?
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
The Eagles. Blue Man Group.
What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Unforgiven.
Mac or PC?
Both. PC for general work; Mac for dealing with photos and videos.
What are you happy about right now?
Damned little, which is good. Contented people aren’t happy; they are sheep. The only way to live is to be ticked off and do something about it. Happiness comes in small moments, which are important, but life is not about being happy. It’s about being and doing. Happy is part of that, but not the object of it.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
In 2004, it is definitely vote — get everyone you know to vote, get strangers to vote. Last time I voted, I was the only person there in line for five voting machines.
After 2004, run for office. Don’t bitch about how bad the politicians are if you are not willing to get out there and run yourself. I did; I ran for the Alabama legislature in 1994. I won the Democratic nomination and lost to the incumbent Republican who outspent me 100-to-1, but I got more media coverage and votes than any losing candidate for the legislature that year. The total cost of my campaign was $1,016, and I received 4,111 votes in a district where people were so right wing they thought Ronald Reagan was a flaming liberal. By the way, although I ran as a Democrat, I did so because it was easier and cheaper to qualify that way than to run as an independent, which Alabama election laws discourage with onerous ballot requirements. I do vote for Republicans, quite a lot sometimes, as I vote for or against the person; the party affiliation means much less than the personal qualifications. The best environmentalist in the Alabama legislature is a very conservative Republican. So don’t buy party lines; educate yourself on the people and the issues, and go vote.