Book Scene: Book turns lens on William O. Douglas’ environmental legacy | Explore Yakima

Should trees have standing?

Justice William O. Douglas famously pondered this hypothetical in his dissent in Sierra v. Morton. The Sierra Club had sued to block the development of a ski resort in Mineral King Valley in California. In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Sierra Club had no standing — the legal right — to sue because the club and its members had not suffered any actual injury.

But there were parties that stood to be negatively impacted by the development of the resort. The trees, plants and wildlife of Mineral King stood to have their lives and environment irrevocably impacted by the development of the land. Trees, deer and bears cannot bring suit in our courts, obviously, but in his dissent, Justice Douglas wondered if perhaps we should create the legal framework for suits to be brought on their behalf.

Recently some countries have seen fit to do just that. Colombia and New Zealand recognize the rights of rivers; Ecuador provides constitutional rights to rivers and forests.

William O. Douglas was a pioneer in the environmental and conservation movement. In “Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas — Public Advocate and Conservation Champion,” the honorable Margaret M. McKeown, herself a current judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, examines the environmental legacy of Douglas’ activism, both on and off the court.

Much has been written about Douglas, the man who spent his boyhood right here in Yakima, who would grow up to be the United States’ longest-serving justice. He wrote several autobiographies on top of numerous other books, and extensive studies of his legal opinions have been authored in the decades following his departure from the court in November 1975. McKeown’s work adds to the literature on Douglas with its focus on Douglas as a “dissenter.”

In the legal field, he was a champion dissenter, dissenting in almost 500 Supreme Court cases, often alone. But McKeown shows he dissented as a citizen, too, and his discontent often resulted in real change. When the Washington Post editorial board wrote an opinion in favor of the construction of a parkway on the Chesapeake & Ohio canal, Douglas invited the editorial board to hike the 184-mile length of the canal with him. The Post editors joined him, though none of them finished. Still, they retracted their position, shifting public sentiment on the parkway, and the C&O canal later became a national park.

That was not the only time Douglas hiked in protest. A similar walk in Olympic National Park helped stop the development of an extension of U.S. Highway 101 into the Olympic Peninsula, and an expedition with his friends Olas and Mardy Murie to Alaska played a role in the long fight to get federal establishment of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

There is much to commend McKeown on for her efforts. The book is informative and explores areas of Douglas’ life that have not been as heavily examined as others. It is well-researched, drawing on archival records from libraries across the country, as well as Douglas’ own work. Finally, it is succinct. With the main text at just over 200 pages, I was able to complete it in just a few sittings. It was nice to read a history book that was clear in its purpose and argument, and did not overstay its welcome.

“Citizen Justice” will find a welcome place among the literature on William O. Douglas. Readers will find it pairs well with Susan Summit Cyr’s “Tanum: A Story of Bumping Lake and the William O. Douglas Wilderness,” another recent release that my colleague Amy Miller reviewed in this column several weeks back. A lot of new Pacific Northwest and environmental books are being published right now. This is a good moment for fans of these genres, and “Citizen Justice” is a can’t-miss read.

• “Citizen Justice: The Environmental Legacy of William O. Douglas — Public Advocate and Conservation Champion” by Margaret McKeown was published by Potomac Press on Sept. 1.

• J.T. Menard is a history instructor at Yakima Valley College and a former employee of Inklings Bookshop. Inklings staffers review books each week in SCENE.