Veteran water advocate Laura Ziemer knows a thing or two about finding common ground. From her time clerking for one of the first female chief justices appointed to a federal court, to her role in founding Trout Unlimited’s groundbreaking Western Water Project—Laura has built a career on building consensus. I sat down with Laura to discuss the power of female mentorship and the growing role of women in the conservation movement across the American West.
How did you come to this work?
I was lucky to grow up outdoors, sailing with my family. Not unlike fly-fishing and the sportsmen we represent at Trout Unlimited, sailing requires being finely attuned to the nature around you—the shifting of air on water, how to make the boat respond—you quickly learn that it’s all connected. In college, I thought I’d be a biochemistry major, exploring the fundamental building blocks of how we all are put together.
But I really disliked lab work. I ended up in a research position under a husband and wife team at Indiana University who were at the forefront of exploring the intersection of law and ecology. They were inspiring, not only in the excellence they had achieved in their fields, but in their joy, curiosity and integrity. They told me there were lots of people interested in ecology, but few who understood how it relates to our everyday lives. I thought, if they think I ought to go to law school, I better take their advice.
Talk to me about your early career and mentors.
When I graduated from law school, I was fortunate to earn a clerkship with Judge Barbara Rothstein, who at the time was Chief Judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington and among the few women then confirmed on the federal bench.
She was one of the best settlement judges on the West Coast, and I was by her side on some really thorny cases. Witnessing not only her command of the law but also her incredible read of people allowed me to learn how to be persuasive, fair and have integrity. She settled cases that no one else could through the sheer force of her intellectual ferocity.
At lunch one day she relayed a funny but poignant story. She and her husband were in D.C. for her swearing in, and everyone assumed her husband was the new federal judge. They would go in for a handshake, and she would say, “Oh him? He’s just a brain surgeon. I’m Judge Rothstein.”
Her message to me was that just because something hadn’t been done yet didn’t mean it couldn’t be done.
Why do you think Trout Unlimited has been so successful at building non-traditional partnerships and allies in conservation?
Prior to joining Trout Unlimited, I had worked with Earthjustice on Spotted Owl litigation in the ancient forests along the Pacific Ocean. I was fortunate to work under Patti Goldman, who had a robust U.S. Supreme Court practice.
Patti’s mentorship was incredibly valuable, and the Spotted Owl served as an important lesson. Despite years of sound conservation arguments, a dangerous narrative of “us versus them, jobs versus owls” had taken hold.
When I moved to Bozeman, Montana, for Trout Unlimited, I sensed the same narrative beginning to take shape. The reintroduction of “charismatic megafauna” — grizzlies and wolves — had many ranchers and farmers rightly concerned with the management of these predators. We began the Western Water Project in 1998 with a goal of restoring healthy stream flows and habitat.
I had a vision to create a more durable conservation.
I was at that perfect juncture in my career, just seasoned enough to feel confident but young enough to still have that idealistic blue-sky energy and optimism. With the guidance of my mentors I knew that consensus-building was possible.
Rather than creating a mentality of scarcity between environmentalists and ranchers, I had a vision to create more durable conservation.
Regardless of your background, everyone here could get behind the notion that in restoring streams and fisheries, we were just trying to create better fishing experiences.
Through the Western Water Project, we created a conservation blueprint that wasn’t a zero-sum game. What resulted was a narrative of hope, forgiveness and social change, and a focus on healing the landscape to make it more abundant for everyone.
Tell me about the team you have built at the Western Water Project.
When I was hired in 1998, I was one of only two women.
What Melinda Kassen and I found was that even though there weren’t many women on staff or even in our membership, we had landed at a place that was incredibly supportive.
Melinda helped lead and grow our water work, and is now senior counsel for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of which Trout Unlimited is a member.
Recently at our program-wide meeting, I looked across the room and saw a program that now operates in nine states and employs 65 people—fully half of whom are young, dynamic and ambitious women.
It hit me that Melinda and I are now the Patti and Barbara for these young women. This is the cycle. Conservation means different things to different people. The more inclusive we can be, the more relevant and durable our work will be, not just for landscapes, but also communities.
Trout Unlimited is a Walton Family Foundation grantee.