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Pioneering Georgia’s Environmental Law

A spotlight on policy director Dr. Laurie Fowler

As a lawyer, educator and policy maker, Laurie Fowler, the director of policy for the River Basin Center, has had an impact on Georgia’s students and ecosystems that extends through decades.

Her environmental law career started on a ferry in Puget Sound, where she was accompanying a friend to graduate school in Oregon. “I hadn’t heard of environmental law, so I was planning to do environmental science or journalism. But I started talking to this woman on the ferry, and she said ‘You ought to meet my neighborhood association’s environmental lawyer.’ I wrote him a letter, asking if I could come work for him,” Fowler said. 

At the time, she had no idea that usually only students already in law school work for law firms—Fowler was a junior at the University of the South in Swanee, Tennessee. However, the lawyer offered Fowler a summer job. 

Since then, she has continued to forge her own path. After attending law school at the University of Georgia, she created the state’s first public interest environmental law firm.

“I was offered positions in San Francisco and Washington DC, but I loved Georgia and felt like there needed to be somebody doing this sort of work in it. A friend and I started the first public interest environmental law firm, called LEAF, Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation,” Fowler said. 

While Fowler loved the thrill of litigation, she eventually landed a case that allowed her to make an impact through proactive policy work—and to spend more time with her young children.

“Georgia was way behind on progressive policies regarding solid waste, water management, land preservation and environmental justice, and I got to work in all those areas,” Fowler said. 

The case in particular that moved her into policy work dealt with a proposal to build a hazardous waste incinerator. 

“The state wanted to build a hazardous waste incinerator—and all the sites they were looking at were in black communities, underwater for most of the year, or proposed outside of the open meetings law. But what we ultimately persuaded the state was that not only were those things wrong, but that they didn’t need a toxic waste incinerator in the first place. That instead, we should create a toxic use reduction program where we taught industry how to reduce their toxic waste by changing their chemical feedstock. We drafted a law to create the toxic waste reduction program. I really loved the policy development part of it—it involved talking to all sorts of people and gave me more stability,” Fowler explained. 

By focusing on policy development, Fowler was able to head off many lawsuits before they began by developing win-win solutions for environmental problems. “I always felt a little conflicted by litigation because there was a clear winner and loser at the end of each case. I often thought that they shouldn’t have had to go through the fight, and waste so much time and money. They never should have gone for the permit in the first place,” Fowler said.  

Policy development gave her the opportunity to directly solve problems. It also allowed Fowler to move to Athens, where she gave lectures at the UGA School of Law and Odum School of Ecology. Finally, the two departments offered her a full time position, which eventually morphed into her position at the River Basin Center. 

“I was able to continue doing the same work, but with the addition of teaching. I inherited what’s now known as the Environmental Practicum from Dr. Milner Ball and made it interdisciplinary by having law students work with graduate students in ecology, engineering, forestry, environmental design and natural resource economics. It gives students a chance to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to solving environmental problems for governments, public interest groups and corporations,”  Fowler explained. 

Through the practicum, Fowler’s students have drafted laws enacted by Georgia legislature in greenspace protection, conservation and watershed protection, among other things. Working with students has also kept Fowler optimistic for the future. 

“One of the best parts of my career has been getting to work with all these great students. It’s hard to become jaded when I see bright, motivated students thinking about the world’s problems,” Fowler stated. 

Fowler offered her own wisdom to students looking to make a difference, based in a long career spent fighting for Georgia’s natural resources: “There are so many ways to make a difference. Try to get an internship while you’re still in high school or college, just so you know the vehicle for change that is most interesting to you. Try different things so that you can figure out what you want your day to look like. You can make a difference behind a desk or out in the field—it’s up to you.”