Nature can’t always defend itself, but a recent gift to the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington will further the work of preserving environmental resources and open doors to more students drawn to a clinical experience in conservation law.
The Indiana University Maurer School of Law recently announced a $2.5 million gift that will endow the Glenn and Donna Scolnik Clinical Chair at the center. “It’s a tremendous boost for the program, and probably most importantly, the beginning of a foundation that’s going to allow us to be able to offer this service for a long, long time,” said Executive Director and IU Maurer Professor William Weeks.
Weeks said the gift will allow a greater number of second- and third-year law students to gain experience working on real environmental matters with clients and staff lawyers at the center. It also will allow the center to serve more clients who rely on its legal help.
The center’s mission is to provide free legal service to conservation groups, improve conservation law and policy, and offer students clinical experience.
Since its founding in 2005, more than 100 interns from IU Maurer have received clinical experience, Weeks said. This year, the center also will offer internships to students at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis.
The center is an independent nonprofit that has maintained an affiliation with IU Maurer, but it relies on donations to carry out its work. Weeks said the gift will fully fund one of two permanent staff attorney positions at the center, which also employs two graduate fellow attorneys.
Glenn Scolnik, a graduate of the Bloomington law school who’s also on the center’s board of directors, said despite a national reputation for the quality of the Conservation Law Center’s work, “It’s always something that could have stopped” without reliable funding.
Scolnik, chairman of the private equity firm Hammond Kennedy Whitney & Co. Inc., said the gift in his and his wife’s name also will cement the center’s relationship with IU Maurer.
“These guys are as good as anybody in the country when it comes to conservation law,” Scolnik said.
Christian Freitag, executive director of the Bloomington-based Sycamore Land Trust, said the Conservation Law Center’s work has helped safeguard about 8,000 acres of wetlands, forests, farmland and other property in southern Indiana that the trust owns or protects through conservation easements.
“Among other things, they’ve allowed us to be confident in the knowledge that we are on the cutting edge of the legal side of conservation,” Freitag said of work the CLC has done for Sycamore. That’s particularly true regarding conservation easements – contracts drawn up by landowners that place permanent development restrictions on land.
“It’s the Sycamore Land Trust’s job to enforce those restrictions,” said Freitag, himself a Maurer grad. “These contracts are complicated, and it’s an emerging area of law,” even after about 50 years.
Landowners who obtain conservation easements may sell or bequeath the protected land, but the development restrictions remain. There are tax benefits for placing land in conservation, and Freitag said the complexity of enforcing the easements is due to compliance with different sets of state and federal requirements. The center’s staff keeps up to date with laws and regulations that often are in flux.
“It’s actually the only center or clinic of its kind in the country that is focused on conservation law – how do you save land, how do you save the best land, and how do you do it in a way that does that in perpetuity,” Freitag said.
Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council, said the center also has helped assure conservation groups a voice in court. He pointed to a decision affirmed after multiple appeals in Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corp., et al. v. Save the Valley, Inc., et al., 953 N.E.2d 511 (Ind. Ct. App. 2011).
Maloney said that case – argued in appellate courts with assistance from the CLC – had a broad impact in ruling that the Hoosier Environmental Council and other groups had standing to challenge a landfill permit. That decision, he said, established the right of associational standing in Indiana and “benefits any membership organization who may want to pursue a legal action on behalf of its members.”
Attorneys at the CLC “work with a very credible network of environmental attorneys and nonprofit groups, and I think their advice is sought out,” Maloney said. “Obviously, we have a high regard for them.”
Freitag recalled Weeks and staff at the center also assisted in an unusual situation in which a former Superfund site near Bloomington was donated to Sycamore as part of a 400-acre gift. Known as Neal’s Landfill, the site had undergone a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-supervised cleanup of carcinogenic PCBs to bring it to industrial development standards.
Nevertheless, Freitag said the gift posed a dilemma for the land trust. “Rather than running for the hills,” he said, he turned to Weeks and the staff at the center to see what could be done. “After about $60,000 worth of free legal research, we determined Sycamore Land Trust could take that land without any fear of heightened liability.”
While any development on the site must be low-impact, Freitag sees possibility. “Even if it’s just as demonstration solar panels, it’s a way to take something bad and find a way to make it positive, and we could only have done that with the center’s assistance.”
Scolnik and Weeks have a friendship that dates back to the early 1970s when both were members of the IU football team, though Weeks says there was a difference: “He was a star football player.”
Scolnik was a good enough receiver to set IU records at the time. He went on to play four seasons professionally – two in the National Football League and two in the Canadian Football League – after which he returned to Bloomington to earn his law degree. Weeks and Scolnik later worked together at Sommer Barnard P.C., a predecessor firm to Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP.
Scolnik said Weeks “is a brilliant lawyer, and then I saw him really sacrifice to go pursue a lifelong passion of conservation of wildlife and our ecological systems, to really pursue the mission of conservation.”
But Weeks said the work is rewarding, and typically there is more interest in internships in the clinic than can be served. In addition to the typical 10 or so IU Maurer students who intern, Weeks said opening the program to IU McKinney students likely will add another seven or so positions, and perhaps as many as 10 more in time.
“One of the things that makes this a special place to work is we really care about what we’re working on, not just as a professional matter, but as a personal matter,” Weeks said. The staff “really care about making a difference in the natural world.”•