The work the Wyoming Outdoor Council does as a conservation nonprofit takes the effort of a group of people with a range of skills, backgrounds, and expertise. Across the state, we have become known for our immersion at the Wyoming State Legislature each year, where our conservation advocates work with lawmakers to help craft and pass some of our state’s most important conservation policy. We’re also known for citizen engagement, which involves the entire WOC team in planning events (in-person and online) that bring our work to you, our supporters, members, and the public.
But beyond these more public-facing endeavors, a lot of our work goes on behind the scenes, quietly and diligently. It is within this work that the Outdoor Council staff attorneys play an invaluable role. And it’s seen in no better place than the small legacy of our legal internship program, which we’ve run informally for about 20 years and which has recruited some of our current staff including Executive Director Lisa McGee and Conservation Advocate John Rader.
Our current intern is Alex Hamilton, a 28-year-old who is finishing up his law degree — as well as a master’s in Environmental Studies — at the University of Colorado-Boulder. His work so far with the Outdoor Council is proof of the critical role attorneys play in our work and more broadly in environmental conservation. It’s crucial to the watchdogging part of our mission — staff attorneys often are responsible for reviewing pages upon stacks of important legal documents to keep federal and state agencies and lawmakers accountable to their own policies, contracts, management plans, and legislation.
Alex’s particular interest has been in federal land use planning and management, which involves the land under the control of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Land use planning and management is the process of regulating the use of land by these agencies to allow for a variety of uses while preserving the land’s natural resources.
“I’m really excited to be working at the Outdoor Council on these particular issues,” he said, “because I’ve been working on the interface of federal and state law while at law school, and this is where WOC’s focus has been, too. With this last year being especially focused on school, it’s exciting to have tangible and meaningful work to do.”
For Alex’s internship, he’s already reviewed how the state of Wyoming has chosen to spend money from the Federal Natural Resource Policy Account since 2015. These funds can be used to take action in response to federal land, water, air, mineral and other natural resource policies, or to participate in environmental review processes.
Alex found that most of the expenditures have gone either to local governments to facilitate their involvement in federal land use planning or to the Attorney General’s office to fund litigation. But what he also found, and why the Outdoor Council was pursuing this research, was that despite the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes paying millions of dollars in taxes to help fund FNRPA, the tribes are not eligible to receive any of these funds. As a result, the tribes must fully fund their own participation in resource planning, while Wyoming counties receive tens of thousands of dollars in support from the state.
After finishing this review, Alex wrote a memo to Rep. Andi Clifford, requesting that the state legislature make the tribes eligible to seek these funds. The hope is to expand access to the account so that the tribes have the same support for engagement in federal land use planning processes that local governments do and so that it honors their vested interests in federal land use. Up until this point, the state has not allowed this.
Alex also has two other projects, both related to water quality issues. He’s reviewing the requirements that give the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality primacy over the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Primacy means that these state-level agencies like the DEQ have the ability to administer these acts, as opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency. If, however, the state agency isn’t meeting the criteria, the EPA can revoke primacy and begin to regulate these acts. Through his research, Alex is looking to ensure that the DEQ can meet — and is meeting —the requirements by adequately protecting Wyoming’s air and water in compliance with federal law.
He’s also helping to look into next steps regarding the DEQ’s decision to require surface water quality samplers (such as conservation groups, students, or citizen scientists) to have advanced degrees and other qualifications to collect data for determining surface water quality standards. His research is helping us understand the options the Outdoor Council could pursue with the Environmental Quality Council as well as any potential violations of the Clean Water Act this decision causes.
While Alex admits that delving deep into dense legal cases, regulations, statutes, and other documents isn’t always easy, he knows how important the task is to being a lawyer. It’s like solving a puzzle, he said, and part of that involves getting to understand how certain agencies communicate both internally as well as to the public through these documents.
The tangibility of working as an environmental lawyer is what hooked Alex on the career path initially, too.
“That’s a big part of the reason I’m in this field,” he said.
This path seemed to have been worn in from an early age. Alex grew up on the outskirts of the shores of Lake Tahoe, in Truckee, CA, and proclaims to have always loved the snow (which is a lucky penchant to have when living in the West). He was a cross-country ski racer in high school and went to college in Maine to pursue the sport. It was through ski racing that he was first exposed to the Rocky Mountain West, which he described as “eye-opening.” Although not dissimilar to northern California, the scenery and sense he got looking out many a ski team van window was enough to have an impact. When he graduated with an undergraduate degree in Environmental Studies, he was already sure about two things: that he wanted to get back West and he wanted to pursue law.
“I knew that I wanted to work in environmental and conservation from early on in college. I cared a lot about the Mountain West and wanted to work to protect these places that I care about.”
When he graduates in May of this year, he hopes to seek a position with the federal government, perhaps with the National Forest Service as a natural resources planner. He thinks it’s vital that the government uphold its responsibility to the people and to the land, and he wants to be a career employee who dedicates his life to that.
“This experience with the Outdoor Council has really prepared me to have a holistic perspective on the land use planning process as I pursue a position within the federal government,” he said. “I’ve seen first hand how it plays out from an interest group and an advocacy standpoint, and so now I’m able to bring this breadth of understanding to my future career and hopefully facilitate full and fair participation when it comes to land use.”