Joseph Brecher

The Admiralty Island Case


Learn how Joseph Brecher, in 1970, found his way into environmental law. He tells his story about the wilderness case of Admiralty Island in Alaska. Yes, this was worth the fight!  

Joseph J. Brecher has been an environmental lawyer for 44 years. He was the co-author of the first book on environmental law at the dawn of the environmental movement.  He then worked with Indian tribes for the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder Colorado dealing primarily with issues of air pollution and water use.  For almost 30 years he was of counsel to the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, later Earthjustice, representing the Sierra Club and other environmental groups on over 250 cases dealing with air pollution, wild land preservation, endangered species, protection of fisheries, and forest practices.  His most notable achievements include obtaining special protection for northern California salmon streams, requiring the installation of sulfur dioxide scrubbers at coal fired power plants, and protecting the California coastline from unwise development, and preservation of important wilderness areas in Alaska and the southwestern United States.

While the satisfaction from these victories is obvious, and there has certainly been a diminution in pollution levels in this country over the years, the problems of climate change, drought, and overpopulation threaten to dwarf these earlier challenges.  Individual court cases are not going to be effective in dealing with them.  Mr. Brecher believes that a new strategy, involving a fundamental change in peoples’ values, will be necessary to solve these huge problems.  When we learn that love and beauty is more important than acquiring stuff, we’ll be well on the road to securing our future.


Joseph Brecher:   I was a legal editor at CEB, which is an organization that prepares practice books for lawyers. It was located in Berkeley in 1970 and they had a policy whereby you could take course at UC Berkeley while you were working there, and I took some courses in landscape architecture which I thought was very interesting, and one course was in ecology, which I had never heard of before. And the professor said you know there’s air pollution and water pollution and resources are running out. And I said, geez, I didn’t know that. And he said, yeah, it’s terrible. I said, yeah, that’s awful. And he said, and as far as I can see, the only people who can do anything about it are lawyers. And a light went off and I said, yes, I could do that.

Joseph Brecher:   So I went back to CEB and I said, “I’d like to stop working on the divorce book that I’m doing now and do something on the environment.” And the director said, “What’s the environment?” So I explained it and to their credit, they said, “fine.” The idea of just writing books and doing this scholarly activity seemed to me to not – I needed to get into the fight.

Huey Johnson:   This is the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. Can you reflect your views on wilderness and wildness?

Joseph Brecher:   Yeah, I think that’s probably why I got into this business and why I do the job. I don’t think there’s anything more beautiful than being out there away from the works of man. I spent a lot of my time doing air and water pollution, but I was always happiest doing the Sierra Club work that involved saving lands for, you know, future ability to use as wilderness or semi wilderness.

Joseph Brecher:   One of my big cases involved Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska. It’s the largest wilderness island in the world, it was at that point. And as part of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, portions of that island were given to a native corporation. And it was full of these gigantic western hemlock and sitka spruce as big as our redwoods here in California, the whole island covered with them from one end to the other. And they got into an agreement with a Japanese company where they were going to cut these fantastic trees, 40,000 acres of them and use them for pulp to make paper. What a horrible deal.

Joseph Brecher:   Well, I was representing the Sierra Club and as well as the Kutznu Band [Sp?] [Killisnoo Village?], which was the local natives who lived on the island. The native corporations were essentially groups of Indians that were created to utilize the resources that they’d been given. And again, you had this dichotomy among the Indians, among the ones who are out there in the, on the land and the ones that were in town dealing with the accountants and the lawyers and so on, and that was very brutally exhibited in Admiralty Island. We filed the lawsuit and we got a settlement whereby they agreed to take alternate lands that were not of such high value and were not wilderness lands on the mainland. And their 20,000 acres were not cut, but the other 20,000 acres that went to the other corporation, they wouldn’t take the settlement. We couldn’t win the case and they did log that 20,000 acres. So that years later, I flew over the island and you could see, first we came on the 20,000 that I had saved, and then there was like a straight line, a razors edge and a huge square that was utterly denuded of these, of these trees. So yes, we, you know sometimes that you have to settle for half a loaf. I felt wonderful about the 20,000 I’d saved and horrible about the 20,000 I didn’t. And the climate being as it is up there, it was going to take a couple hundred years for those trees to grow back.

Joseph Brecher:   So, and I remember I stayed on Admiralty for a week with a friend and we were walking through some of these acres that I’d actually saved. There was every critter that you’ve ever heard of, we saw, fishers, martins, otters, weasels, every kind of bird, bald eagles everywhere. The only thing we didn’t see, but heard, were grizzly bears. And it was a real feeling of elation.