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Environmental Law Hits Mainstream With Houck Award

July 11, 2006


"I traded Honolulu for Baltimore," says
Oliver Houck , Tulane law professor and recent recipient of the American Bar Association Award for Distinguished Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy. Houck was scheduled to receive the award in Hawaii on Aug. 6 but declined the free trip because it coincided with his mother's 100 birthday, opting for a quick trip to Baltimore in mid-June to receive the honor.

"Let my detractors be warned that I will probably be around a long time," quipped Houck, director of Tulane Law School's environmental law program and an outspoken environmentalist who has written extensively on the dangers to ecosystems as a result of unbridled industrial, commercial and residential development.

Houck said that being designated as the recipient of the award is an indication that his work, as well the work of other environmentalists, is influencing thought in the country's corridors of power. "The ABA tends to be heavily represented by corporate lawyers," said Houck. "I think it shows environmental protection is now institutionalized. People who advocate and promote sound environmental policy are not out in left field. Environmental protection is now absolutely mainstream."

Like almost everything else these days, Houck's nomination for the award can be attributed, at least in part, to Hurricane Katrina . Apparently, the member of the ABA who nominated Houck for the award had attached a copy of his paper, "Can We Save New Orleans?" which was published in the spring issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal . In the 68-page paper, Houck offers a sweeping assessment of environmental, political, scientific and social dynamics affecting the flood-prone city.

"It was one of those times when you rush to write and it all comes out the way you want," said Houck, who said he wrote the piece over a three-week period. This is actually a synthesis of 25 years of research and writing, said Houck.

An opponent of overdevelopment of the nation's fragile wetlands and coastline, Houck writes that there are two possibilities in the region's future. The first is to "maximize human development in the coastal zone and protect it with a complex of levees, gates, drainage canals and pumping stations for the ever-subsiding lands behind them."

The second possibility, the one for which Houck advocates, embraces a "coastal zone that will maintain itself and its inhabitants for generations to come. The mechanism is to use the coast as a first line of defense. And to cede it, including the violence of floods and storms, the space it needs to protect us, and thrive."

That means curbing our desire to build atop wetlands and up to the water's edge and, instead, live on natural ridges and other higher ground that can be reasonably protected. Giving nature the space it needs to rebuild coastal zones would in turn offer protection from hurricanes.

"We have to stop thinking in terms of building Chinese walls down there and start thinking of managing landscape," said Houck.

The director of the environmental law program at Tulane Law School, professor Oliver Houck is an outspoken and award-winning environmentalist.


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