March 02, 2021

Views from the Chair: Celebrating 50 years of the Section’s Spring Conference

Howard Kenison

In the spring of 1988, I drove from Denver to Keystone, Colorado, to attend the 17th Annual Conference on Environmental Law. As I joined the queue to register in the lobby of the Keystone Conference Center, I could not imagine that 33 years later I would have the incredible opportunity to serve as Section chair as we celebrate the 50th year of the conference, now known as the Spring Conference on Environmental Law.

The Keystone Center lobby was filled with environmental lawyers from across the country, many luminaries in their fields. The late 1980s and early 1990s were the height of Superfund litigation across the country and the conference brought leading environmental lawyers together for in-depth panels on the challenging issues between industry and state and national regulators.

The Spring Conference began 50 years ago, in 1971, when several lawyers gathered at a hotel near Denver’s then-Stapleton International Airport to discuss new legal issues arising from the developing area of environmental law. The recent passage of the National Environmental Policy Act and important changes to the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were combining to create an emerging new environmental practice area. A few years later, the gatherings moved to the new Keystone Resort, where the Annual Conference on Environmental Law grew and remained for almost 40 years. The conference became known as simply the “Keystone Conference.” Ultimately, the conference left Keystone and moved to Salt Lake City in 2010 and stayed for five years before moving annually to other cities across the nation.

While the Spring Conference continues the Section’s tradition of providing top CLE and networking opportunities and I look forward to attending each year, for me, the experience of Keystone remains at its heart. For younger lawyers, it is, I am sure, wonderous to think that Keystone attendees would wear ski clothes (and clomping ski boots) into a plenary or panel session in the morning—ready to jump on a ski lift as soon as the clock struck noon.

But it was not just the top-flight plenary sessions and panels, or for that matter the powder skiing, that made Keystone so special. Rather, it was meeting, talking with, and learning from the pioneers and leading practitioners of environmental law from across the United States.

It was at Keystone that I met and skied each year with the late John Quarles, one of the founders of the Environmental Protection Agency who also served as the agency’s general counsel. From John I gained insight into background on the creation of EPA. While we did not see each other during the remainder of the year, those sunny afternoons showing John some of the back runs at Keystone are among my fondest memories of the Keystone Conference.

Keystone is also where I first met Kinnan Goleman, in 1995, when he was Section chair. A decade later we would serve together on the ABA’s Standing Committee on Environmental Law. Kinnan by all accounts was the first private environmental lawyer in Texas. His evenhanded and gentlemanly approach to Section leadership is something I try to emulate. John and Kinnan are just two of the many, many, many other leading environmental lawyers that I met at Keystone who remain friends and professional colleagues.

Keystone, and now the traveling (and virtual) Spring Conference, provide a calm meeting place between private and government lawyers for thoughtful discussions on otherwise contentious legal issues. The Spring Conference allows us to establish connections that form the basis for trust and civility among private practitioners who represent industry, and enforcement and regulatory lawyers, who represent federal and state governments.

This year we will celebrate the 50th Spring Conference in a historic manner that could not have been contemplated in 1971: during an international pandemic and virtually—as faces in little squares on a computer screen.

I will very much miss seeing all of you in person in Denver to celebrate 50 years of “Keystone.” Nonetheless, we will recognize this exceptional 50-year run by the Section with a 50th Anniversary Special celebration event during the Spring Conference. I look forward to seeing you virtually this year and in person in 2022.

Howard Kenison

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Howard Kenison is a shareholder with the firm Jones & Keller, P.C. in Denver. He is the chair of the Section of Environment, Energy, and Resources.