What does an environmental attorney do to protect the environment? Plenty! Mike Sherwood shares a few stories of his legal work in Hawaii (in the U.S. Attorney's office) and from his private practice in California. In Hawaii he helped to protect Honolulu harbor from oil spills from large shipping companies and he prosecuted trespassers on remote Hawaii Islands. His diligence in protecting the ancient redwood forests paid off with the addition of important heritage forests to Redwood National Park in northern California.
Mike’s legal career began with a job as an assistant U.S. attorney in Hawaii after law school in the late 1960s. In his interview with Huey Johnson, Sherwood describes how his Hawaii cases eventually led him into the field of environmental law.
After leaving the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1972, Sherwood went into private practice in Hawaii where he represented the Sierra Club and other environmental groups in several public interest environmental cases. While working on these cases he met Jim Moorman, head of the brand new Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, who offered Sherwood a position as staff attorney in San Francisco. The Legal Defense Fund had been created to provide legal services to the Sierra Club and other conservation organizations that otherwise couldn’t afford them. Later, the Legal Defense Fund separated from the Sierra Club and changed its name to Earthjustice in 1997. In 1974 Sherwood became the fourth lawyer in the Legal Defense Fund’s San Francisco office. He worked there until his retirement in May, 2013.
In his long career as a public interest environmental lawyer, Sherwood brought many cases throughout the west to protect public lands from abusive logging, mining, and off-road vehicle use, to protect endangered species and other wildlife, and to promote clean air and water. He famously stopped clear-cut logging of old growth redwood forests in northern California and helped expand the size of Redwood National Park with his work. Sherwood ended up working for Earthjustice just shy of 40 years.
Huey Johnson: Mike, you represent a very powerful part of what we call the environmental era, which is environmental attorney’s.
Mike Sherwood: Yes.
Huey Johnson: Who struggled mightily as David and Goliath, more often than not, against huge forces to sustain some sort of environmental quality and you were one of the early ones, one of the effective ones. Tell me how you developed an interest in nature.
Mike Sherwood: It didn’t really blossom until I was a lawyer in Hawaii, and when I was working in the United States Attorney’s office as an assistant United States Attorney, I got involved in a couple of environmental cases and that was really the beginning of my professional environmental career.
Huey Johnson: What were the cases?
Mike Sherwood: For years, ships entering and leaving the port of Honolulu had been dumping oil into the ocean, in Honolulu Harbor. The Coast Guard had requested the United States Attorney to bring criminal prosecutions against the shipping companies, and for years those requests had fallen on deaf ears. When I became an assistant United States Attorney, I thought those cases were important, so I brought the very first series of criminal prosecutions against shipping companies in Hawaii to clean up the oil pollution in Honolulu Harbor. I also represented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a number of cases involving trespassing on the northwest Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which is a string of very remote, uninhabited islands that have a lot of endangered species. And again, as in the case of the oil pollution matters, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for years had been asking the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute some of these trespassers, and it hadn’t happened until I became a U.S. Attorney– assistant U.S. Attorney. And so I brought some criminal trespassing cases on behalf of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, then we managed to get some convictions, and it made news in the newspaper and that was the very first time that it became publicly known that you weren’t supposed to go onto these remote islands.
Mike Sherwood: After 3 years in the U.S. Attorney’s office, I went into private practice. While in private practice, I represented the Sierra Club. This was in April of 1974.
Huey Johnson: Can you think back on what was maybe the most exciting success you’ve had?
Mike Sherwood: One of my earliest cases involved the periphery of Redwood National Park in Northern California. I, and some of my clients took several trips up to see what was happening for ourselves and it was really awful seeing these 2,000 year old redwood trees being cut to make picket fences and redwood decks. That was quite a moving experience seeing that, and then that case ultimately resulted in a political solution. I went back to the congress with Dr. Ed Wayburn, who was the president of the Sierra Club at the time, and we testified before congress. And congress ended up acquiring the privately owned logging land that surrounded Redwood National Park. With one stroke of the legislative pen, they doubled the size of Redwood National Park.
Huey Johnson: Wow!
Mike Sherwood: So the park now includes all of that land that was being logged that we were fighting over. So that was very gratifying. And it’s very gratifying going back to Redwood National Park now and seeing the new growth of younger redwoods coming in where the old growth redwoods had been clear cut.
Huey Johnson: What have been lessons from your career, the thoughts that you might pass on to a younger generation, people that might be considering entering environmental work?
Mike Sherwood: Maybe the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is–and that I would try to pass on–is to try to maintain your optimism in the face of what could be overwhelming despair when you look at the big picture of the world and what’s going on. Try to fight that, and try to get out and see the country that you’re working trying to save, or just any country. Get up into the mountains as John Muir said.