Shaping America's Environmental Legacy

January 1, 2008Duke Law News

As John Adams describes, “When I finished Duke Law School in 1962, environmental law in the United States hadn’t been invented yet. But it was fast becoming clear that industrial pollution was destroying America’s air and water, and unrestrained development was gobbling up the landscape. And there was no way to stop it.”

After a brief stint with a Wall Street law firm and a five-year tour as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, Adams saw
the chance to act. In 1970, with a small group of established New York lawyers and half a dozen freshly minted law school grads, he created the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which today stands as one of America’s leading forces for the environment.

Adams has remained at the NRDC helm for 35 years, through the creation of pioneering laws like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts to a new generation of battles over challenges like global warming and energy security that he believes will fundamentally reshape the ways America powers its economy. “Our leaders simply must find the vision and the responsibility to face the environmental challenges of the 21 century. The first generation of environmental law has been a tremendous success, but the work is just beginning,” says Adams. “Growing energy demand while our climate is jeopardized, over-fishing of our oceans and the stew of untested chemicals all around us add to the challenge. It’s a challenge we can meet, but only if politicians and businesspeople step up to the plate.”

Backed by more than one million members and activists, NRDC’s lawyers, scientists and other experts work to create strong environmental safeguards and make sure they are enforced – even when powerful opponents would rather they weren’t. Through its Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2) venture, NRDC also works with high-tech executives to reinforce the message that a safe, secure environment is a fundamental business necessity, and the foundation of a healthy economy.

The group is home to some of the country’s best legal and scientific talent that includes a growing roster of Duke University alumni. These best-and-brightest include Greg Wetstone (J.D., ’78); John Steelman (A.B, ‘83); John Walke (A.B. ‘90); Marico Sayoc (Master of Environmental Management, ’99); Lee Hayes Byron (M.E.M., 2001); Alexandra Kennaugh (Master of Public Policy & Master of International Development, 2001); and Adriano Martinez, (A.B. Envorinmental Science & Policy, 2001).

Watching Duke emerge as one of the nation’s leading centers of environmental law and policy innovation is a point of pride for
Adams, who has maintained close ties to Duke Law School, where he serves as a life member of the Board of Visitors. He received a Duke University Distinguished Alumni Award in 1991, and the Law School’s Charles J. Murphy Award in 1992. Working with Law School staff and other Duke alumni, Adams spotlighted the need for Duke to create a university-wide environment program, and was pleased when the Center for Environmental Solutions was created. “Environmental challenges are getting more and more complex. That means we need the best training possible for the next generation of environmental leaders, whether they work in business, government or the non-profit sector – the Center helps do that.”

Along with his efforts at NRDC, Adams has taught for 26 years as an adjunct faculty member at New York University Law
School, where he created the NYU/NRDC Environmental Law Clinic. He is Chairman of the Board of the Open Space Institute, a land trust for the protection of land in New York and the northeast. He also serves on boards of the Woods Hole Research Center, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Center for American Progress.

John Adams lives in upstate New York with his wife of 40 years, Patricia. They met at Duke and she remains a partner in his environmental endeavors. They and their three grown children enjoy spending time at their home in the Catskills on the Beaverkill River.

A 1966 graduate of Duke Law, Doug Wheeler has focused on natural resource and environmental issues throughout his career, helping shape many of the laws and programs that now underpin national environmental policy.

Joining the Department of the Interior in 1969, Wheeler served for seven years as Assistant Legislative Counsel and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks. Wheeler then served as a senior executive of nonprofit environmental and conservation organizations, including the National Trust for Historic Preservation (Executive Director, 1977-80), American Farmland Trust (President, 1980-85), Sierra Club (Executive Director, 1985-87), and the World Wildlife Fund (Vice President, 1987-91). From 1991-1999, Wheeler served as California’s Secretary for Resources, with responsibility for all of the State’s natural and cultural resource programs, administered through 18 departments, conservancies, boards and commissions with combined budgets of nearly $2 billion and a total staff of 13,000. During his tenure, Wheeler pursued environmental and resource conservation in the face of the state’s rapid growth and development. Seeking to integrate economic and environmental goals, he was a pioneer of Habitat Conservation Plans – innovative agreements negotiated among federal, state, and local governments with private landowners and nonprofit groups for broadscale conservation. Moving beyond the narrow focus of the Endangered Species Act on protection of a specific endangered species, Habitat Conservation Plans hold the potential to protect entire landscapes encompassing multiple species and their habitats while also facilitating lower-impact pathways for economic growth. In similarly inspired initiatives, Wheeler also promoted mitigation banking and transferable development rights.

His early development of these innovative strategies at the state level played a large part in their growth and increasingly important role in national environmental policy. His work on ecosystem management similarly helped lay the foundation for the increasing emphasis on management of landscapes and natural systems rather than specific species. He now practices at Hogan & Hartson in its Washington, D.C., office, and has also remained active at Duke, serving as a visiting lecturer and as a life member of the Law School’s Board of Visitors.