We’re proud and thrilled that two of our senior staff attorneys have been with us for 10-years now. Brook Brisson, who focuses on Arctic work, celebrated her 10-year anniversary in July, and Katie Strong, who works on public lands and wildlife issues, will celebrate her 10-year in September.
They both went to law school at Lewis and Clark, and got to know each other better after graduating and finding their way to Trustees just months apart in 2010.
Brook knew she’d be doing this work back in grade school
Brook knew she wanted to protect ecosystems as a grade school kid in Vermont. She imagined doing botany in the Amazon, but law school and a post-graduate court clerkship brought her to Alaska instead. She worked on clean water and mining issues for the Northern Alaska Environmental Center before coming to Trustees as a staff attorney.
Now she works to protect one of the most important ecosystems on the planet. She leads our Arctic legal team and works with clients, partners and coalitions to stop the industrial exploitation of Alaska’s Arctic. She plays a key leadership role in the coalition and campaign to prevent drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, for example, and considers protection of the Refuge “a truly defining conservation and human rights issue.”
What has surprised her over the years is how often facts don’t matter in decision-making processes and how decisions instead get made for political wins. “You see people in various leadership roles, state and federal, who are willing to forgo established understandings and practices to achieve their ends. They’re not guided by law and reason. So I am often fighting people who want something and will do anything to get it, no matter the cost.”
At the same time, the work allows her to immerse herself in the places she works to protect. Whatever she’s working on and no matter how long it takes—whether it’s stopping an illegal land exchange aimed at putting a road through a national wildlife refuge, or halting coal mining near a Mat-Su neighborhood, or preventing oil drilling on sacred lands—she gets to learn about these places through the legal process.
“When you read environmental impact statements, people’s comments, letters from people supporting litigation, and input from traditional and western scientists, you learn from their experiences and stories and knowledge about the animals, the water and land, the plants and migrations,” she said, “and then you’re entrusted to tell that story in court in a compelling way.”
Clearly the work takes endurance and focus, and achievements don’t happen overnight. They happen slowly, incrementally, with setbacks, said Brook. That’s all true, and still the last ten years have gone by fast for her.
“I imagine I will be here doing rewarding, challenging work, with great colleagues and clients, for the next ten years,” she said. “You always hope that you’re lucky enough to find a job that fits you. And that you fit the job and the organization, and that you do it with people you respect and care about. I value that greatly here–what Trustees has built as an organization, and what we’ve done together.”
Katie knows the value of doing the work for the long haul
Katie Strong loved working from an office in the Teton Valley of Idaho doing policy work to protect the Yellowstone region, so it took the right opportunity to bring her up north.
“I wanted a job where I could litigate,” she said. “I had already been to Alaska and knew it was gorgeous and beautiful… and the job that opened up at Trustees involved working on the Pebble exploration trial. Trustees for Alaska was a good choice for me.”
She still works to stop the proposed Pebble mine, and to protect the health of wildlife and public lands. “The Arctic Refuge and the Pebble mine are the biggest issues facing Alaska in terms of conservation,” she said. “It surprises me that bad ideas just don’t die. The role of money is so strong. It’s amazing what it takes to make bad ideas go away, even in the face of significant public opposition, even with agency opposition.”
Even, in fact, when the legal argument is about the meaning of a clearly defined word. Katie and Brook both worked on litigation over coal mining in the Wishbone Hill area of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. The case essentially came down to whether the word “shall” meant “shall,” and therefore the agency was illegally renewing a mine’s expired permit.
Trustees won the case, but that this had to go to court goes to the core of how so many people in power do everything they can to defy the law.
“I take a very academic view of the law and I think that makes me even more surprised and aghast at what people get away with, what we have to go to court over,” said Katie.
When those in power flip-flop their reasoning and make justifications for actions that go against their obligations and the law, it means lawyers have to spend time arguing over inanities rather than doing the hard work that needs to get done, she said, “work that requires that we can make time for having fairly sophisticated discussions about how we can live with the natural world and respect Indigenous peoples, and respect how we want to live our lives.”
Getting to that work matters immensely to Katie, as does making a commitment to the long arc of change. “Someone famous said you never win in this work, you’re just holding the line,” she said. “The gold and copper will always be in the ground in Bristol Bay, the oil will always be in the ground in the Arctic Refuge. Until we have a very significant shift in society, that’s part of the work that’s tough and ongoing and one of the reason people need to do it for the long haul.”
Katie has seen how those who have spent their lives protecting places and knowing the issues have the rich perspective and relationships necessary to make change happen.
“It’s been my goal from the start to be one of those long-term people,” she said. “A decade seemed like such a long time to me when I started, and now I see that it goes by fast. Back then I was so proud when I first got my business cards with my name on them as staff attorney. Now, a decade later, I think my law school me would be really proud.”