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Remembering Don Baur (1954–2022)

David Jennings


  • Commemorates the accomplishments of Don Baur throughout his life.
  • Looks at Don’s everlasting contributions to Ocean and Coastal law and his significant impacts on marine conservation.
Remembering Don Baur (1954–2022)
SimpleImages via Getty Images

“Anything for Don,” is how one colleague responded when I asked them to review this article. That phrase likely sums up how most of us lucky enough to be somewhere in his orbit felt whenever Don Baur asked for a favor. Sadly, on December 15, 2022, Don passed away. Although Don’s practice included many areas within environmental and natural resources law, for the purposes of this article I wanted to mostly focus on remembering his immense accomplishments in ocean and coastal law, and marine conservation.

By means of introduction, Don started law school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1976, in the midst of the “Golden Age” of environmental law. Throughout his life, Don had a deep and profound connection with nature, and as a young man he spent much of his free time hiking rugged mountain landscapes, including trekking across Iceland’s Laugavegur Trail. So, it was natural that he would come to discover his professional passion in the nascent field of environmental law. As a law student in 1978, he interned at the National Wildlife Federation; while there, he worked on a case involving the Platte River in Nebraska that resulted in the creation of the Crane Trust, an organization dedicated to protecting the critical habitat of the endangered whooping crane and millions of other migratory birds. After graduating in 1979, Don began his career as an Honors Program attorney with the National Park Service in the Solicitor’s Office of the Department of the Interior. From there, he became general counsel for the Marine Mammal Commission in 1984. And in 1987 he joined Perkins Coie in Washington, D.C.; in 1993 he became a partner in their Environment, Energy & Resources practice group, which was where he remained for the rest of his career.

Don truly was a champion for both marine mammals and the marine environment generally. Even though Don left the Marine Mammal Commission in 1987, he never left marine mammals. Far from it. Don was an authority on the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Among his many professional achievements, perhaps his most famous was his work with Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project and the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation. For anyone unfamiliar with the 1993 film Free Willy, in short, it told the story of a boy’s bond with a captive orca (the eponymous Willy), which eventually leads to the boy breaking Willy out of captivity and releasing him back into the wild. The character of Willy was portrayed by the orca Keiko, who in fact was taken from the waters around Iceland in 1979 at the age of two. Keiko went on to be sold to aquaria in Iceland, Canada, and eventually Mexico, which is where he was held until 1996. Thanks to the film’s popularity, a movement began—spearheaded by the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation—to truly return Keiko to the wild. Don provided counsel to this movement and eventually helped to get Keiko released back into his native Icelandic waters in the late 1990s.

Many other imperiled marine taxa benefitted from Don’s legal skills. For instance, as sea turtle populations were being decimated by the commercial shrimping industry in the 1980s and 1990s, Don worked to enforce the implementation of turtle excluder devices. Don also served as the sole counsel to Friends of the Sea Otter for 30 years. Sea otters had been hunted almost to extinction by the early 20th century, and Don’s work focused mostly on the southern or California subspecies; it is no exaggeration to say that Don was as responsible as anyone for helping to pull them back from the brink.

In recent years, Don served as legal counsel to the Whale Sanctuary Project, an organization committed to ending the exploitation of whales and dolphins in captivity through the establishment of coastal sanctuaries. As with any project that Don took on, he contributed so much more than sound legal advice. Through his passion and professionalism, Don brought qualified people together, provided creative legal and political strategies, and utilized his incredible connections to create outcomes that have been, without a doubt, central to the success of the entire sanctuary movement. He would be incredibly proud to know that his efforts toward ensuring Lolita, aka Tokitae, an orca who has spent over 50 years in a tiny tank in the Miami Seaquarium, finally seem to be paying off. Since Don’s passing, the Miami Seaquarium, in partnership with Friends of Lolita and the Lummi Nation, announced a joint effort to return Lolita to her rightful home in the Pacific Northwest. And additionally, Don served on the boards of several other organizations working to protect coastal habitats and the marine taxa who inhabit them, such as the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Don also still found the time to make significant and enduring scholarly contributions. Of particular relevance here, Don edited, and authored chapters, in the first and second editions of the ABA’s Ocean and Coastal Law and Policy treatise. The chapters he authored in the second edition were “The Law of Marine Mammal Conservation” (naturally), and “Legal Authorities for Ecosystem-Based Management in Coastal and Ocean Areas.” Don also edited the first, second, and third editions of the ABA’s Endangered Species Act: Law, Policy, and Perspectives treatise. And Don authored numerous legal articles related to the marine environment and conservation issues, including articles on legal protections for polar bears, marine protected areas, offshore wind energy, and captive cetaceans.

As well as his legal practice and scholarly work, Don was a dedicated teacher and mentor to hundreds if not thousands of students over the years. He taught various courses on environmental, wildlife, and animal law issues, including co-teaching (along with several other editors and authors of the ABA treatise) the hugely popular Ocean and Coastal Law course at Vermont Law and Graduate School every summer for 25 years. Aside from his wisdom, Don’s sense of humor helped to make this course so popular, for example by formulating Star Trek-based hypotheticals for final exams where the whales were the sentient beings. And despite his numerous clients, cases, and other commitments, Don’s compassion extended to his students. I (along with many other former students of his) was always amazed at how he still found the time to check in with me to discuss job searches, collaboration on various projects, and life in general. Many young attorneys passionate about the environment shy away from a career with a law firm. But Don exemplified how it is possible to balance responsibly guiding corporate clients in environmental matters with dedicating considerable time to providing pro bono services to conservation organizations.

Don’s work did not go unnoticed during his lifetime, and over the course of his career he received recognition for his advocacy and service through a Marine Wildlife Conservation Award from the Center for Marine Conservation, the 1872 Award for Service to the National Parks from the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, and the Animal Welfare Advocacy Award from the Pegasus Foundation. When I think about Don’s work, I’m reminded of the saying, “Saving one animal may not change the world, but surely for that one animal, the world will change forever.” Don showed that it’s actually possible to do both; sometimes, saving one animal can change the world for the better for all of us, as well as changing that individual animal’s world. Don will be dearly missed both personally and professionally, but his humble brilliance will continue to serve as a source of inspiration to all who knew him. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to call him a friend and mentor, and I will always be reminded of him and his dedication to the ocean’s inhabitants anytime I see an orca, sea otter, or sea turtle, just . . . existing.