Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

University of Denver environmental law reaches endangered plant settlement

University of Denver law students don’t back down when they head into court, even if their target is the United States government.

Students and faculty at DU’s Sturm College of Law Environmental Law Clinic have been battling for years with the Department of the Interior on behalf of an Arizona-based environmental group seeking endangered species protection for two plants found only on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

On Aug. 18, the clinic reached a settlement with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior that will see the government revisit an earlier decision to deny endangered species protections for the two plants. The dispute dates back to 1996 when the Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources sought to have the rare plants listed.

In 2004, the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity started pressing the federal government to rule on the request, which languished for years in bureaucracy. The Center also challenged the government’s ultimate 2006 decision not to protect the plants. DU’s student law office at the clinic has been representing the Center.

Law students at the clinic do real-world legal work under the guidance of DU professors, who are licensed attorneys. In some cases, students actually appear in federal courts under a government student lawyer provision.

Professor Michael Harris has been overseeing the endangered plant case. Under the most recent development — the Aug. 18 settlement in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia — the government agrees to revisit its 2006 rejection. In addition, the government agrees to pay more than $50,000 in legal fees to the Center.

Harris says the settlement is a good sign for the Center and its bid to see the plants protected.

“I am confident that in its reconsideration the government will finally reach the conclusion, based on sound science, that both species are imperiled,” Harris says.

The plants at issue are the agave eggersiana and the solanum conocarpum. The agave is a robust, perennial herb that can grow from 16 to 23 feet tall with large flowers. The herb is native only to the island of St. Croix and is extremely rare. The solanum conocarpum is a thornless flowering shrub that grows more than nine feet tall. Native only to the island of St. John, the shrub is one of the most endangered plants in the Virgin Islands.

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