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SACRAMENTO � The Old West had circuit riders. Modern-day California has Deborah Smith. Like the fabled jurists who once trekked among rural outposts to hold court, Smith travels the Central Valley’s highways and back roads enforcing the law. A rental-car engine supplies the horsepower today, and boots give way to a suit hanging in the backseat for courtroom appearances. But Smith’s mission remains much as it was for those who rode circuits more than a century ago: punish the worst offenders and try to deter others. As an environmental circuit prosecutor, however, Smith’s passion is tinged decidedly more green. “It comes from being in this work for six months and seeing how it’s a struggle to keep our environment from essentially dying,” Smith said on a recent two-day trip that would eventually take her to Tulare County. “It’s pretty easy to be passionate about keeping the trees green and the water clean and protecting the environment.” Smith, who left the San Diego city attorney’s office, is part of the Environmental Circuit Prosecutor Project. Overseen by the California District Attorneys Association, the project’s eight lawyers work a 30-county territory the size of Nebraska where rural prosecutors don’t have the staff or expertise to pursue many environmental crimes. Many of California’s largest counties have attorneys dedicated to fighting polluters. For the state’s rural district attorneys, that’s often an unimaginable luxury. And they can’t rely on the state attorney general, who usually leaves local pollution issues to local agencies. “California has a tradition of very decentralized government,” said Lisa Brown, assistant general counsel for enforcement at the state Environmental Protection Agency. “Generally speaking, most environmental regulation work is done at the local level and not the state level.” In eight years, the circuit attorneys have prosecuted more than 1,600 cases. Aided by the state Department of Fish and Game and other regulatory agencies, they’ve won verdicts against river polluters. They’ve secured a multimillion dollar settlement to offset the cleanup cost of a mammoth 1999 tire fire in the city of Westley. And they’ve prosecuted poachers who slaughter bears for their gall bladders, a supposed aphrodisiac that can fetch thousands of dollars on the black market. What they get in exchange may not seem like much: a salary that’s a fraction of what they could earn in the private sector, a life lived largely on the road and field work that, by nature, displays California’s worst conditions. But project organizers say they’ve never had a problem recruiting dedicated litigators. “I love this job,” Smith said “It is pretty nasty sometimes, yeah. Yes, it’s mud and dirt and sludge. But I feel like we’re doing concrete work, good work.” GETTING BUY-IN The environmental circuit project was born a decade ago from an idealistic proposal that initially was slapped down by budget realities. Edwin Lowry, then director of CDAA’s environmental crime division, and Gerald Johnston, the former assistant secretary at California’s Environmental Protection Agency, came up with the idea of creating task forces that would bring enforcement cases to district attorneys in rural counties for prosecution. “We needed buy-in of the DAs, so we visited some of the rural counties. Well, the Lake County DA said, you know, I really don’t need more cases. I need prosecutors,” said Lowry, now an assistant attorney general with the state Department of Justice. Unbowed, Lowry took the DA’s comments back to the CDAA board. Leaders gave him approval to cobble together a program of on-loan and directly employed attorneys that would prosecute environmental crimes on behalf of individual counties. The project had a shoestring budget and four attorneys funded by grants from state and federal EPAs and the Department of Fish and Game. “Our fantasy, our hope, was that cases would come to these people, they would prosecute them and folks would say, wow, this is a fabulous thing, we need to expand the program,” Lowry said. That never happened, at least not financially. The program still relies on grants from public agencies and a fund that collects money from environmental settlements. But the circuit project did receive a mostly enthusiastic reception from DAs happy to have extra help � and the final say in what cases are pursued in court. Each circuit attorney must be deputized by a county’s district attorney before filing charges. “This is not an outfit in Sacramento deciding what environmental crime is prosecuted,” Lowry said. “I think that made a big difference with the district attorneys.” Project organizers also made a point to hire attorneys already familiar with the regions and the people they would serve. Lawrence Allen, then a senior deputy district attorney in Shasta County, was one of the first hires. When he started in 1998, Allen already had a reputation as a top-notch environmental litigator, having successfully prosecuted an elk poaching case based on animal DNA evidence. “It was kind of a natural for me,” Allen said. “The cases can be very complicated. The law is very complicated. And one of the things I enjoyed most is you’re dealing with some of the best lawyers in the state of California as your opponents.” Allen frequently filed civil actions against scofflaws, a strategy that’s uncomfortable for many veteran criminal prosecutors, Brown said. “Environmental crime is very different than traditional crime,” she said. “If you do a DUI case, there are tons of appellate cases to let you know what’s going on. Environmental regulatory law is very broad.” SMOKEY THE BEAR Covering a 14-county territory, Allen has charged poachers, polluters and one defendant who illegally caged a bear in deplorable conditions with plans to shoot the captive animal when hunting season finally arrived. “I sent the guy to prison for three years,” Allen said. “The bear did fine, too. They nicknamed him Smokey, set him loose and that was the end of it.” The public supported the animal cruelty case. But not every jurisdiction was so friendly. “I used to joke that I needed danger pay to go into Siskiyou County,” Allen said. He recalled one prickly case where he charged a miner for dredging into the banks of the Klamath River. “They put extra bailiffs on to protect us,” he said. “There was a murder trial going on down the hall and nobody was there.” The miner was fined $3,500. Allen escaped without injury and worked for the circuit prosecutor project until 2003. Today he is district attorney for Sierra County, a one-prosecutor operation. Humboldt County DA Paul Gallegos is one of the elected officials who has welcomed circuit prosecutors like Allen � even when his community has not. “In a county like this where, at least historically, there’s been a reliance on resource extraction, I’ve had people who’ve said, you’ve got to get rid of these environmental prosecutors,” Gallegos said. Timber interests tried to get rid of Gallegos in a 2004 recall election after he sued Pacific Lumber for allegedly providing false information about the impacts of their operations on watersheds. The recall failed and the environmental prosecutions continue. Gallegos said the fact that circuit attorneys, and not his 14 deputies, bring environmental cases doesn’t shield him from criticism. “There is no buffer, and I don’t think in this line of work you should look for any buffers,” he said. Although circuit project leaders say DAs have overwhelmingly received the program with open arms, Gallegos said his peers’ reactions range the spectrum. “Some people, they’re not as keen on it,” he said. “Some are like, come off of it. If you’re living in a rural county where farmers are the base of your constituency, there’s going to be consequences if you go after their operations. When you pick on these industries they sort of fight back.” Gale Filter, the project’s director, said the district attorneys’ trust has grown over time. And even though some pockets of community resistance remain, he contends the circuit attorneys have created a much more even level of environmental enforcement across the state. “Over eight or nine years of working on this, of working with the DAs, I think [Attorney General] Bill Lockyer said it best when he said the program has become part of California’s landscape.”

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