Anniversary of Landmark Environmental Law Case at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Photo of participants at anniversary event.

Left to right: Dr. Estella Leopold, Tom Lamm, former Governor Dick Lamm, Victor Yannacone Jr., and Superintendent Keith Payne mark the 40th Anniversary of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument by unveiling a new wayside highlighting the efforts to create the monument. NPS photo.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Colorado) recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of two related events: the establishment of the park and a landmark court case that helped lay the foundation for modern environmental law.

An announcement about last month's anniversary celebration described the legal battle to save the park from development:

In the summer of 1969, the area that is now Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument nearly became an A-frame housing subdivision. The monument was saved by a grassroots group called the Defenders of Florissant and a precedent-setting legal team. Together, they succeeded in convincing a federal court to file an injunction to stop the developers’ bulldozers long enough for a bill to be passed and the president to sign it.

“How can a group of citizens take on the real estate establishment? Well…it’s love and science and good lawyers,” said Estella Leopold, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, daughter of famed conservationist Aldo Leopold, and one of the founding members of the Defenders of Florissant.

Members of the legal team were also present at the anniversary event, including brothers Tom and Dick Lamm. Dick Lamm was a state legislator at the time and went on to become the longest-serving governor of Colorado. Tom Lamm shared the stories of the innovative legal arguments presented in court and how the judge gave them a big break to save the Florissant Fossil Beds.

The last speaker of the day was Victor Yannacone Jr., who was recognized by all as the heart and soul of the legal team and whose brilliant arguments won the case. Yannacone was awarded the National Distinguished Service Conservation Award by the National Wildlife Federation in recognition of his efforts with Florissant, and for his role in founding the field of environmental law.

"A History Of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument - In Celebration of Preservation" describes the court case that successfully delayed development just long enough for Congress to finally decide to protect the area.

By issuing the order, the court acknowledged that at Florissant the public had an interest in the land that justified interfering with private property rights. Environmental journalist Joseph Sax called it, "...one of the most extraordinary lawsuits yet to arise in the area of environmental litigation."

According to information from the park about the anniversary, the legal effort to protect Florissant was a precedent-setting application of the “public trust doctrine,” which is a "foundation of environmental common law. That doctrine states that the public has a right to stop private development that threatens natural resources."

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument is located about 35 miles west of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The park's 5,998 acres protect

a wealth of fossil insects, leaves, fish, birds, and small mammals; few areas in the world yield more fossil species.

You'll find directions to the park and other information to help plan a visit on the park website.