Q&A with Paul Kampmeier of Kampmeier & Knutsen

Q: Let’s start with and easy one, do you prefer summer or winter activities in the Pacific Northwest?

A: Summer. I play baseball with my kids and my kids’ friends. We also go backpacking and camping a lot.

Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in environmental law?

A: Before law school, I was living in Taiwan. Taiwan is a really interesting study in closed systems. It has a lot of people working and living in a small space and the economy was really taking off when I was there. You could see the growing population and consumer demand really taking a toll on the environment there.

Q: That’s interesting that your sort of a-ha experience was abroad, for many people it’s usually something right in their backyard, so to speak.

A: Well I knew, intellectually, before living in Taiwan that this was an issue I cared about. But one of the reasons it wasn’t as apparent to me before I traveled is that, for the most part, here in the states we are not talking about curbing population growth or reducing consumerism. We’re really working on the symptoms of environmental degradation instead. We have the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to protect air and water quality. Those do a lot of good and are incredibly important.  But those statutes operate on the underlying assumption that we can protect the environment without limiting population growth or consumerism.

Of course, I say that with an acute sense of hypocrisy. I live in a nice house with two children. I buy them stuff and my in-laws by them stuff, stuff with the only purpose of entertaining them. I don’t mean to be pointing fingers. I just mean to identify that the work we’re doing is important, but if we really want to tackle these environmental problems, then in my view we need to find a way to bring population growth and consumerism into the conversation.

Q: Right, it’s not so much an issue of saying that what we’re doing is pointless or that everybody needs to dramatically change everything in their lives, but just that we need to be thoughtful.

A: It’s a way of saying that none of us can do everything but all of us can do something. And if everybody does something it will matter.

Dealing with these symptoms through statutes like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act matters and it’s making an impact. These things are immensely valuable and immensely important. Not to mention the social impact of making it normal for these laws and values to be in place.

Everything matters and everything contributes to making the environment better, and I value it all.  But in my view we would stand a better chance of curbing environmental degradation, and protecting species and habitats, if we could find a way to limit population growth and consumerism in the United States.

Q: What is your favorite part of practicing public interest environmental law?

A: My favorite thing about practicing law is helping an organization or an individual fix a problem, the basis of which is someone else’s misunderstanding or misapplication of the law. Our clients are facing real issues, about real places that they care about deeply. And very often there are powerful interests pushing a project or running a business in a way that will degrade those places.  But in doing so they are ignoring the law or relying on a misinterpretation of the law.  I absolutely love bringing those powerful interests into court and having a judge rule against them—having a judge correct their misinterpretation of the law or order them to stop violating the law.

It’s extremely satisfying to persuade a judge that our clients are right. It’s extremely satisfying to dissuade a judge from finding that the other person’s misunderstanding or misapplication of the law is correct. It’s extremely satisfying to turn around [to our client] and say, “hey, we solved this” or “we fixed this, it’s a little better.” It’s satisfying to persuade an intelligent, skeptical judge that we’re right and to have the court come out with an opinion that says “you’re right and the other folks are wrong”—to use our powers [as a lawyer] for good. When powerful people are misapplying the law or hiding behind the law, beating them in daylight, in court, that’s delicious.

Q: What is a common misconception about environmental lawyers that you would like to set straight?

A: I think one common misconception is that environmental lawyers are all radicals. And by radical I mean that we operate outside of or beyond the law, or that we’re trying to change the judicial system. The best environmental attorneys I know—the ones that succeed for their clients and succeed in making change–are those that have a relatively conservative view of the law, or at least a view that is consistent with how judges are going to view the law when they open up their papers and think about how to resolve the case.

Q: What about NEDC matters most to you? So much that you wanted to sponsor Pedal Pursuit?

A: I love NEDC for lots of reasons. I love the organization’s commitment to enforcing environmental statutes. I love its commitment to the Columbia River, the Willamette River, Oregon, and Washington, to its place—to these places. I love its staying power.

I love the people that I know who are involved with NEDC. I think each of them has a profound respect for the truth. These folks aren’t willing to look the other way from what’s true.

I love that NEDC is a part of Lewis & Clark Law School and a big part of NEDC’s commitment and advocacy is to give students opportunities. Opportunities to participate in environmental work and I mean really, meaningfully advocate. As well as the opportunity to be around people that are willing to advocate for the truth. It’s a terrific organization and I’m proud to represent it.