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Attorney General Eric Holder at the ENRD Centennial Celebration


United States


Remarks as prepared for delivery.


Thank you, John. Good afternoon, everyone. It’s a distinct pleasure to join you today in commemorating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Environment and Natural Resources Division.

John, before you sit down, let me recognize the extraordinary job that you have done for the last ten months serving as Acting Assistant Attorney General. Under your strong leadership, the Division did not just sit back and wait for the confirmation of a new AAG. Rather, you continued to enforce aggressively our nation’s environmental laws, you reinvigorated the Department’s commitment to environmental justice for all Americans, and you sought creative solutions to lawsuits brought against the federal government – to mention just a few things. You did all this with your characteristic good cheer, enthusiasm, and love of country that make it such a pleasure to work with you. You are a true leader. Thank you for your service, John.

I also want to welcome Ignacia back to the Department. Ignacia is a talented, really fine attorney, and I know she arrives at this moment armed with great ideas. I also know that she is already a friend to many of you here in the audience, and that you, like me, are looking forward to working with her to advance the Division’s important mission. Ignacia helped develop the Department’s Environmental Justice program during the Clinton Administration, recognizing the special burden that a polluted environment puts on minority and low-income communities. I am especially looking forward to working with her to strengthen our efforts to achieve environmental justice.

I would also like to recognize and welcome the many distinguished guests here in the audience today, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former Deputy Attorney General Carol Dinkins, and many other former Assistant Attorneys General of this Division. Ignacia, you are taking your place in a long line of impressive individuals who have served this Division as AAG.

I know that there are other important guests here today representing the many federal agencies that work with the Division – welcome to all of you and thank you for participating in this happy occasion.

And last but not least, I wish to extend a particular welcome to the many current and former employees of the Division who are here with us today. It is because of your work and dedication that the Division can look back at – and be proud of – so much in its history.

As some of you may know, I majored in American History in college. I believe that understanding the past can help inform our view of the present. The history of the ENRD reminds us of the importance of our nation’s public lands and natural resources to the development of this country, and the important role of the Division in protecting these resources for future generations.

The ENRD – then called the Public Lands Division – was formed at a time when the nation was just beginning to realize that its resources were finite. President Theodore Roosevelt started the twentieth century with a new conservationist spirit in the White House. He set aside hundreds of millions of acres of public land and established 150 national forests and 5 new national parks.

This Division was created in the same year that Roosevelt’s presidency ended, and one of its first tasks was to stand up in court to protect these public lands and resources, as well as the President’s right to set them aside. This continues to be an important part of the Division’s work today, as it represents all of the land management agencies of the United States.

Times have changed – the environmental legislation of the 1970s and ‘80s expanded the scope of the Division’s work to include the protection of our air and water and the cleanup of polluted lands. This Division has been at the forefront of using these laws to protect our environment. You have been leaders in cases ranging from the cleanup of Love Canal to dealing with the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Today, the Division is bringing its expertise to help our nation meet new challenges, such as addressing the carbon pollution that threatens our climate. You are using the environmental laws to stop polluters, and achieving impressive results. In the past few years, ENRD has obtained billions of dollars in court-ordered work and pollution controls to protect the environment. Just recently, the Division entered into a settlement with BASF Corporation to reduce the use of chemicals that destroy the earth’s ozone layer, required a Louisiana fertilizer company to control sulfur dioxide emissions, and worked with municipalities to reduce sewer overflows that pollute the waters. You understand that public safety depends on a safe environment. And your criminal prosecutors are achieving outstanding results, prosecuting crimes as diverse as the smuggling of endangered species, the illegal harvesting of fish in the Chesapeake Bay, and illegal oil pollution from ships. Just as your predecessors in the Division helped to preserve public lands and resources for us, your work helps to ensure and preserve a healthier environment for generations to come.

But as this audience well knows, the work of this Division is diverse, and goes beyond environmental law. And again, looking at your history shows the importance of the Division’s other, ongoing missions. I was impressed to learn that during World War Two, the Division’s land acquisition operation mobilized in support of the war effort, acquiring more than 20 million acres of land for military bases, training facilities, and other national defense purposes – often on very short turnaround time. This support was critical to our military in a time of war. Today, your land acquisition activities continue on behalf of the military, but also are directed at acquiring land for national parks and courthouses. This is still a vital and important mission.

Similarly, since its founding, the Division has been responsible for protecting the resources and rights of Native Americans. In the Division’s early years, it fought in court to restore title to thousands of acres illegally taken from indigenous peoples and to protect tribal water rights. This work continues to this day, as the Division litigates on behalf of federal agencies to protect the water rights, hunting and fishing rights, and lands of federally-recognized Indian tribes. This work is of vital interest to the tribes, to whom we have a solemn responsibility, and I am grateful for your efforts.

Of course, these are just a few of the important things that the Division has done throughout its history. Perhaps the most important function of the Division is one that runs through all of its specific practice areas – the fair administration of justice. As the Supreme Court described United States Attorneys long ago, government lawyers are representatives "not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all; and whose interest, therefore . . . is not that it shall win a case, but that justice shall be done." I know that Division attorneys strive to live up to this statement, whether by ensuring that our environmental laws are enforced fairly, defending federal policies, litigating fair compensation for land, or protecting the rights of Native Americans.

That’s why I am confident that, while the pressures on the nation’s environment and natural resources are ever-increasing, and the challenges of how to protect these resources have become even more complex, you will continue to fulfill your mission. You will continue to allow the United States to rise to these challenges, and ensure a healthier environment and a prosperous nation in the years ahead. You will help to insure that future generations of Americans have access to a healthy environment and a better world.

I look forward to working with all of you as we start the next successful 100 years of the Division. Congratulations, and thank you.

Updated August 20, 2015