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Together in Advocacy

UW's unique joint-degree program prepares law students to lead the fight for resource rights

By Pat Wolfinbarger

Volume 13, Number 1| Fall 2011


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Sweat trickles down Tim Sowecke's (JD/MA '14) bearded face as he hefts another log into place. This buck-and-rail fence, which will protect a riparian area near Lander, Wyo., from disturbance by cattle, is one of 36 projects he'll oversee this summer as the WCC's senior project coordinator. Though the work is intense, the former fly-fishing guide isn't complaining. "I enjoy experiencing Wyoming's natural wonders," says Sowecke, who's held the position since 2009.

Sowecke's toil is a testament to the truth—that people are Wyoming's most valuable natural resource. And with population and industry on the rise, trained advocates who can safeguard the state's water, mineral, energy, and land resources are in demand.

That's why when Sowecke leaves his WCC position this fall to enter the University of Wyoming College of Law, he won't be leaving fieldwork behind. In fact, he'll return to these rivers, plains, and mountains as he pursues a dual degree in law and natural resources.

In 2008, UW's board of trustees approved a unique JD/MA program to be administered by the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) and the College of Law. After completing a three- to four-year course of study, candidates receive two degrees: Doctor of Jurisprudence and Master of Arts in ENR.

The JD/MA program was originally proposed by law professors Debra Donahue and Reed Benson. As faculty of the only law school in Wyoming, a state that leads the nation in energy exports, they saw a need to expand both classroom and practical learning opportunities for their students.

"Lawyers in nearly any type of practice in Wyoming can encounter environmental or land-use issues," says Donahue, who teaches courses in public land administration, environmental policy, and Native American resource law. "ENR law has become increasingly complex, and practitioners need to possess or have access to a wide range of information and skills to be successful."

The recent water case Montana v. Wyoming illustrates the complexity of natural resource law, says Lawrence MacDonnell, UW professor of law and nationally recognized expert in water policy.

The suit contested Wyoming's right to recapture used irrigation water drawn from the Tongue and Powder rivers in the Yellowstone Basin. Though this practice made Wyoming's irrigation efforts more efficient, it also meant less water returned to the river as runoff. When water levels dropped, downstream rights holders in Montana demanded compensation. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-1 that Wyoming's actions were legal under the terms of its interstate water compacts.)

The Montana vs. Wyoming decision will likely have a significant impact on the water policy of cities, states, and tribes across the West. "The continuing challenge for water is to ensure our limited resources meet our ever-evolving needs," says MacDonnell.

UW's rigorous joint-degree program prepares candidates to navigate similarly complex scenarios. Like all law students, JD/MA candidates spend their first year learning the basics of contract, tort, and constitutional law. But in Year 2, they shift their focus to natural resources, studying subjects like water rights, mining, climate policy, and oil and gas law.

The practice of natural resource law requires a broad knowledge base, MacDonnell says. Water lawyers, to take just one example, must work closely with experts in engineering, hydrology, water chemistry, and economics. "We want our graduates to be comfortable in this role, to have a basic understanding of these areas, and to have experience working in teams," he says.

To this end, JD/MA candidates explore the human, scientific, and practical dimensions of natural resource issues through 18 to 21 credit hours of interdisciplinary coursework. Approved classes include offerings in statistics, science, engineering, ethics, history, and even women's studies. Students work with their advisors to map out a program of study that supports their career goals.

And while coursework provides a necessary foundation the JD/MA program offers learning opportunities far beyond the classroom. Between their first and second years, candidates get a foretaste of practice while completing a hands-on internship in applied natural resources. Past placements include the U.S. Forest Service, Wyoming State Legislature and energy companies. (Working in a law office or similar setting is not allowed.) Students also gain valuable skills by completing a thesis and by participating in a multidisciplinary research team during their capstone course.

For Tim Sowecke—who collaborates frequently with government agencies, energy companies, and nonprofit organizations in his WCC role—the program's practical and internship components were a major draw. "Simply put, the dual degree program offers a dynamic, well-packaged program catering to the natural resource strengths of the state and aligning well with my career intentions," he says.

Out of the 75 or so students accepted into the UW College of Law each year, only about 5 are admitted to the JD/MA program. To date, only two candidates have graduated with JD/MA degrees. Still, early feedback from students and faculty has been promising. "I think that our joint degree candidates would emphasize the accessibility of program faculty and staff, connections with potential employers, the capstone experience, and affordability," Donahue says.

These sentiments are echoed by joint-degree candidate Crystal McDonough (JD/MA '11). Her search for a law program with a strong environmental focus led her to Denise Burke, associate dean for student affairs and senior lecturer at UW's College of Law. "She convinced me that UW was the place to go," says McDonough.

The choice turned out to be a fortuitous one. During McDonough's tenure at UW, she served as student director of the Rural Law Institute's Legislative Research Service, received a graduate assistantship in the School of Energy Resources, and met with Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kite (JD '74). During the summer of 2010, she interned at the Wyoming State Legislature, where she conducted research and analysis for the Wind Energy Task Force.

Nick Agopian (JD '07), a senior government and regulatory specialist for Devon Energy Corporation, also sees value in the joint-degree program. As a law student, Agopian worked with state legislators and government agencies to found the Wyoming Conservation Corps in 2006. Though he graduated from UW before the JD/MA program began, he says he would have benefited from interdisciplinary coursework, particularly the classes on geographic information systems. "GIS-generated maps are essential tools when working with agencies and the public to explain development plans," he says.

The JD/MA program enjoys strong support from both the law and ENR faculties. In the future, the schools plan to offer team-taught courses covering both the legal and technical aspects of a natural resource topic. For example, a graduate-level course in watershed management to be offered in spring 2012 will cover hydrology, water chemistry, aquatic biology, and water law. These classes will be open to all law and ENR graduate students, not just those enrolled in the joint-degree program.

For her part, Donahue looks forward to the day when JD/MA graduates take their well-rounded expertise to law firms, agencies, corporations, and nonprofits across Wyoming. "Better-informed lawyers with well-developed communication skills help produce more effective solutions to ENR problems," she says. "That benefits everyone—clients, the general public, and the environment."

 

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