Entomology alumnus combines science knowledge with law to protect the wilderness

Neil Kagan’s unique entomology and law degrees have led to successes such as wilderness protection acts in 18 states safeguarding over eight million acres.

Neil Kagan’s unique entomology and law degrees have led to successes such as wilderness protection acts in 18 states safeguarding over eight million acres.

Neil Kagan
Neil Kagan, legal director of WildEarth Guardians.

Why did you study entomology at MSU?

My career path really began in 1970 on the first Earth Day, when I was 16 years old. That day, my high school held a big assembly about the environment with several speakers. What I heard kindled a passion for protecting the environment that has motivated me ever since. In my senior year, I took an advanced biology class that included ecological field studies. We assessed water quality and biodiversity in streams by studying benthic organisms, especially insects. I was amazed when I saw a rock plucked from the bottom of a stream crawling with mayflies and caddisflies. Here was a whole world I hadn’t known to exist. I was fascinated and chose to study biology at Penn State University.

During my freshman year, my advisor suggested a double major. When I suggested law, he endorsed the choice, saying there would soon be a need for attorneys to enforce newly adopted federal environmental laws. As I was completing my bachelor’s degree, I decided I would be more informed and effective with a better grounding in biology and ecology. So, I chose to get a master’s prior to law school. Michigan State University’s Entomology Department had the best reputation and they offered me a graduate assistantship with a new professor, Rich Merritt. Rich knew from the start that my intention was to go to law school, but he took me on as one of his first graduate students.

How did MSU prepare you for what you do today?

Studying at MSU gave me solid education in science. My thesis involved studying insect populations in four sewage treatment lagoons on campus. Working with Rich, I learned how science works, to think logically and critically, to be objective and write clearly. This was wonderful preparation for law school because many of the same principles apply.

After law school at the University of Oregon, I worked as a solo practitioner. Among other things, I represented a nonprofit environmental group to protect roadless areas in National Forests in Oregon that would qualify as wilderness under the Wilderness Act. Then I worked for 1000 Friends of Oregon enforcing Oregon’s land use planning laws. Eventually, I became a senior counsel for the National Wildlife Federation in the Great Lakes region, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My primary duty was to protect the Great Lakes from toxic substances, nutrient pollution and invasive species. This past year, I returned to Oregon and I am now the legal director of WildEarth Guardians.

Looking back, I can see that my studies and research made me more comfortable working with scientists—hydrologists, geologists and other experts—to win lawsuits. I am grounded enough in science to understand how scientists think and work. Together, we can better advocate for protecting the environment.

What do you regard as your most significant litigation?

In the late 1970s, an impasse had developed nationally over the allocation of roadless areas in National Forests, whether to wilderness or non-wilderness uses. The industry wanted as much forest land as possible to be available for timber harvesting. The environmentalists wanted as much as possible preserved as wilderness. I brought two lawsuits in 1983 that forced the Forest Service to stop timber sales and road building in most of Oregon’s roadless areas, which totaled about three million acres. The lawsuits pressured Oregon’s senior Senator, Mark Hatfield, to accept a compromise that would protect about one-third of Oregon’s roadless areas as wilderness—nearly one million acres. Based on that compromise, Congress enacted the Oregon Wilderness Act of 1984. Congress then used the Oregon compromise as a model in passing wilderness acts for 17 other states. Altogether, Congress preserved more than 8.2 million acres of roadless areas as wilderness in 1984. Ever since, these public lands have been permanently protected from logging, mining, road building and other destructive development. My involvement was exhilarating, as I was right in the middle of all the controversy.

Thoughts for current students? 

One thing I have learned is that one person working alone rarely achieves success. People can be much more effective if they work together and learn from each other.

Anything else you wanted to share?

Insects are still one of my favorite forms of wildlife—I think they are beautiful!

Read about our past featured alumni.

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