From the 2013 News Archive
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Protecting Big Sky Country

By Emily Ver Ploeg 3L

Four months ago, I found myself on a plane peering out my window and watching the bluffs of Billings, Montana get closer and closer as we descended.† I was arriving in this new city to spend ten weeks with the Department of the Interior (DOI), Office of the Solicitor in the Billings field office.† As a law clerk, I assisted the attorneys as they provided advice and legal representation to local offices of the subsidiary bureaus and agencies within the DOI.† This broad client base creates a diverse workload for the Solicitorís Office, and the projects I worked on throughout the summer reflected that diversity.† My projects included drafting a memorandum for the Bureau of Reclamation which provided legal guidance concerning its ability to regulate access to privately owned minerals beneath Reclamation lands.† I prepared interrogatories for an employment discrimination suit and wrote a litigation report to assist the Department of Justice in another suit.† I also attended a forum for tribal leaders at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) regarding the BLMís proposal to regulate hydraulic fracturing on Indian Reservations.

Because I am particularly interested in the land management aspect of environmental law, it was exciting to spend my summer working for the largest landowner in the country.† While in Billings, I witnessed the not-so-obvious complexities of managing public land.† The land agencies within the Department, tasked with managing our countryís water, national parks, national forests, Indian reservations, and all other categories of public land, must strike a balance between human and environmental interests.† I discovered that public land management involves a sensitive network of cultural practices, environmental conservation, local livelihoods and economic realities.† The agencies frequently cannot appease all interests, and one of the Office of the Solicitorís roles is to defend† lawsuits challenging their decisions.†

Another significant role of the Solicitorís Office is to provide general legal advice to the agencies.† For the Billings office, a lot of time and energy is devoted to Bureau of Reclamation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issues.† For example, early in the summer, I wrote a memorandum advising BLM on its authority to allow public access to a piece of its land, across private land.† I also attended meetings at BLM regarding the incorporation of sage grouse management into Regional Management Plans.† The status and protection of sage grouse is an important issue because, if it is designated as an endangered species which the Fish and Wildlife Service is considering, this designation will drastically change the management of private and public lands where sage grouse live.† In an effort to avoid the designation, BLM is altering its Regional Management Plans to increase protection of sage grouse habitat.† The Solicitorís Office is involved in the alterations to ensure that the agency decisions are not arbitrary and capricious, overly burdensome, or flawed in some other way that might encourage lawsuits.

My summer was rewarding because of the variety of projects I was assigned, the helpful and interesting people with whom I worked, and the opportunity to live in another part of the country so different from Baltimore.† I would like to thank the Maryland Public Interest Law Project (MPILP) for their generous support of my work this summer and encourage students to take advantage of the opportunity the MPILP grants and Maryland Environmental Law Societyís Barbri Environmental Law summer grants provide to enable students to work in public interest law.

Photo: Emily Ver Ploeg 3L at Glacier Lake in southern Montana.

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500 W. Baltimore Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-1786 PHONE: (410) 706-7214 FAX: (410) 706-4045 / TDD: (410) 706-7714

Copyright © 2015, University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. All Rights Reserved