When Melissa Scanlan left Wisconsin to become director of the Environmental Law Center at Vermont Law School in June 2013, she left behind a legacy of groundbreaking work on behalf of her home state’s environment.
She had grown up among the paper and pulp mills of Appleton, not far from where the Lower Fox River emptied into Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. In the 1950s, the river made it onto the list of the nation’s ten-most-polluted-rivers. There she developed a passion for all things connected to water: its beauty and transformative power, as well as the public’s right to have access to it.
In 1999 she founded and directed Wisconsin’s first nonprofit environmental law center, Midwest Environmental Advocates, which went on to make a difference in all kinds of environmental issues, including those involving water ranging from chemical discharge in municipal systems to manure run-off at dairy farms to ballast water in Great Lakes vessels. As the University of Wisconsin Law School’s Water Law and Policy Scholar, she helped launch the Center for Water Policy on the campus of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Her decision to leave the region she loved may have surprised many who knew her, but not those who see larger pictures. University of Wisconsin Law School Emeritus Professor Arlen Christenson told a reporter, “Melissa decided early on in her life that she wanted to do something to save the environment and make the world a better place. I met her when she was considering law school in 1995, the same year that the public intervener’s office was abolished along with our environmental law clinical program. But even before she founded Midwest Environmental Advocates, she has always been very focused and smart. Her ideas have been ahead of their time, and her new position at the Vermont Law School is probably the best job in the country for her experience and vision.”
At Vermont Law School, along with directing the environmental law center and helping to shepherd the nation’s top-ranked environmental law program, Melissa is bringing a blend of doctrinal and journalistic elements to her teaching of water law. “I try to bring current events and crises into our case studies,” she says. “I want our students to care, to have a contemporary context for the law.”
Her scholarly work on public access to beaches is expanding and, in a sense, bringing her back home. She has her sights set on the designation of a bi-national scenic trail encompassing the ten thousand coastal miles around the Great Lakes – a distance greater than the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail, combined. Her students are researching laws and public policies and preparing papers that will build legal support for the vision.
“The trail is about bringing people back into contact with water,” Melissa says. “It’s about helping people reconnect with the ‘awe factor’ of the Great Lakes. It’s about public access to a national treasure — and might help lead to its protection.”