College of Law

The Stegner Center’s Research Fellows Program offers outstanding second- and third-year law students an opportunity to participate in scholarly research on environmental and natural resources law. The Program’s research provides legal professionals, policy makers, and the public with the objective facts and carefully documented analysis needed to address the complex resource management challenges facing Utah and other Western states.

Four law students are currently funded through the Research Fellows Program: Stephanie Hanawalt, Hanna Larsen, Ryan Williams, and Devin Stelter. The fellows are currently involved in a myriad of projects from researching complex administrative law issues involving recent amendments to NEPA’s implementing regulations to researching Native American water settlements and treaty rights preserving traditional land uses. This year, Research Fellows will also assist in research on the intersection between law and science, and ways to help non-lawyers engage more effectively in development and implementation of environmental policies.

Jamie Pleune also joined the Stegner Center as a part-time Wallace Stegner Fellow, greatly expanding our capacity. Jamie is a 2007 alumna of the S.J. Quinney College of Law and also holds an L.L.M. from the Georgetown University Law Center, where she served as a Staff Attorney and Clinical Graduate Teaching Fellow. Among her many accomplishments, Pleune was a shareholder at Richards Brandt Miller Nelson, an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, and a clerk for Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parish.

In collaboration with Research Professor John Ruple, and the National Audubon Society’s Vice President, Public Lands and Senior Policy Counsel Nada Wolff Culver, Pleune authored A Road Map to Net-Zero Emissions for Fossil Fuel Development on Public Lands, 50 Envtl. L. Reporter News & Analysis 10734 (Sept. 2020), and the more comprehensive forthcoming article The BLM’s Duty to Incorporate Climate Science into Permitting Practices and a Proposal for Implementing a Net Zero Requirement into Oil and Gas Permitting, 32 Colo. Nat. Res., Energy & Envtl. L. Rev. __ (2021). These articles argue that the Bureau of Land Management is legally obligated to consider greenhouse gas emissions when planning for and permitting oil and natural gas development, and that the BLM must act to reduce those emissions. The articles then chart a path to emission reductions that relies entirely on existing legal authorities.

Professor Ruple collaborated with Research Associate Professor Heather Tanana to publish NEPA at 50—An Analysis of the Data in the Courts, 66 Rocky Mtn. Min. L. Inst. __ (forthcoming 2020). After reviewing years of data from multiple sources, Ruple and Tanana concluded that the burden posed by NEPA litigation is both overstated and falling, and that permitting delays are often misattributed to NEPA. In Debunking the Myths Behind the NEPA Review Process, 35:1 Natural Res. & Env’t 14 (2020), the duo debunk some of the most common myths about NEPA compliance and litigation. Their efforts build on Ruple’s work, together with recent College of Law graduate and former Research Fellow Kayla Race, reviewing 13 years of NEPA litigation. Their findings, which were published in Measuring the NEPA Litigation Burden: A Review of 1,499 Federal Court Cases, 50 Envtl. L. 479 (2020), show that just 0.22 percent of NEPA decisions result in litigation, and carefully quantify the time spent on both NEPA analysis and in litigation. Ruple also partnered with U of U statistics professor Michael Tanana and College of Law alum Merrill Williams to publish Does NEPA Help or Harm ESA Critical Habitat Designations? An Assessment of Over 600 Critical Habitat Rules, 46 Ecology L. Q. 829 (2020), showing that NEPA can expedite decisionmaking. Together, these four articles offer valuable insight into how compliance with the “Magna Carta” of environmental law can be enhanced without sacrificing public engagement, informed federal decision making, or environmental stewardship. Ruple and Tanana continue to work on federal land management issues, including a review of 36,000 Forest Service planning decisions to identify the issues most likely to result in administrative appeals and litigation. They hope this research will support regulatory reform that results in stronger decisions that better protect forest resources.

Ruple and Tanana also collaborated with Professors Robin Craig and recent College of Law alum and former Research Fellow Connor Arrington to write Pakistan Water Management—The Legal and Institutional Framework: Lessons Learned and Opportunities for Improvement (U.S. Pakistan Ctr. for Advanced Stud. in Water & Wallace Stegner Ctr. for Land, Resources and the Env’t 2019). Ruple is currently working with Stegner Center Director Bob Keiter on a series of U.S. State Department sponsored video lectures on American public land law that which will kick off a collaborative effort to strengthen environmental law in Ethiopia.

Professor Tanana continues to contribute to scholarship at the intersection of environmental law and federal Indian law. In collaboration with Dean Elizabeth Kronk Warner, Tanana authored Indian Country Post McGirt: Implications for Traditional Energy Development and Beyond, 45 Harvard Envtl. L. Rev. __ (2021). The article discusses the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma and its implications for Indian country and natural resource development generally. Tanana has also been an active responder to address COVID-19 in Indian country. She co-authored Upholding Tribal Sovereignty and Promoting Tribal Public Health Capacity During the COVID-19 Pandemic, which highlights the inequities experienced by American Indian and Alaska Native communities and discusses the legal issues impacting Tribal responses to the pandemic. Tanana also kicked off the Stegner Center Greenbag series with her presentation on COVID-19 and its Impact in Indian Country. In recognition of her efforts, Tanana was awarded 2020 Attorney of the Year from the Energy, Natural Resources & Environmental Law Section of the Utah State Bar.

The public, lawmakers, and national and regional media outlets are all increasingly turning to the Stegner Center’s Research Fellows Program for information on public land law. We look forward to continuing to provide the carefully researched and objective analysis needed to inform policy making, and to working with the next generation of environmental lawyers to hone their analytical skills. We are grateful to the ESRR Impact Endowment Fund at the Chicago Community Foundation, the Wilburforce Foundation, and a host of smaller donors that make these efforts possible.