Karen Schmidt, JD/MELP 2012
It’s my passion to assist the actual communities and individuals affected by the modification of fragile ecosystems.”
Undergraduate Degree: BA, Environmental Studies and Political Science, University of Pittsburgh
Career Before Law School: AmeriCorps Volunteer, Upper Klamath River, California
As an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2007, Karen Schmidt discovered her calling while studying the dwindling salmon populations in the upper Klamath River that straddles the Oregon-California border.
Once home to one of the nation's healthiest spawning grounds, the river had fallen victim to habitat destruction and disease. But her work, which included biological field research and sampling for the California Department of Fish and Game, was about much more than just numbers.
"I was concerned about the effect of watershed health on the citizens, tribes, and ranchers living in the river basin," Schmidt recalls, noting that the State of California closed commercial fisheries in the region in 2008 as a result of the drastic decline. "That solidified my decision to go to law school. For the species that I was surveying, it was great that I could do the science, but I couldn't help them. I couldn't help stop the decline."
Law school would provide her with the tools and the background in environmental law, particularly the Endangered Species Act, needed to protect both the spawning population and its surrounding habitat.
Fast forward to 2011, and Schmidt is now a student clinician with Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic (ENRLC), part of a team that has recently filed a letter of intent to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over a controversial natural gas pipeline project in Puerto Rico. The ENRLC, acting as lead counsel in the case, maintains that current plans for the 92-mile pipeline violate the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws, thereby threatening sensitive ecosystems and their inhabitants.
For Schmidt, working the case has already involved two trips to Puerto Rico to conduct interviews and tour the path of the proposed pipeline, along with countless hours reviewing evidence, coordinating research, and drafting the letter of intent to sue. She is one of three ENRLC student clinicians presently working the case who are coordinating their efforts with the environmental law clinic at the University of Puerto Rico, as well as a coalition of other attorneys, scientists, conservation groups, and citizens.
"Being able to see a case, basically from its inception through the notice of intent to sue, is a big undertaking," she says. "Students in the classroom don't realize that you have to know a case in and out, every little nuance, and you have to just pore over the evidence you have at hand. That's the main benefit of the clinic: you further your clients' interest and make arguments. This is what a lawyer would do."
For Schmidt, her decision to attend VLS was largely based on the prospect of working in the environmental law clinic. When she and her mother toured the campus in April 2009, their guide happened to be a student clinician who was working on the lawsuit that the ENRLC brought against Vermont Yankee, the nuclear power plant, involving its warm water discharge into the Connecticut River.
"He had the opportunity at the clinic to express his passion using litigation tools. I turned to my mom and I said, 'That's it. That's what I want to do.'" After reviewing other ENRLC cases on the law school's website, Schmidt knew immediately, "hands-down," that she would attend VLS and work in the clinic.
With an undergraduate degree in environmental studies and political science from the University of Pittsburgh, and her experience working the pipeline case, Schmidt envisions putting her legal skills to work back in California or the Pacific Northwest after she graduates in May.
"There's no doubt in my mind that I want to do work in the public interest realm. It's my passion to assist the actual communities and individuals affected by the modification of fragile ecosystems." That could include spawning salmon in the Northwest, the more than 40 species of endangered wildlife and plants along the proposed Puerto Rico pipeline route, or other imperiled species and ecosystems.