Joel Reynolds ’78

Natural Instinct

Fall 2013

Growing up in Riverside, Calif., environmental law expert Joel Reynolds ’78 remembers spending much of his childhood playing outdoors. He also recalls not being able to take deep breaths outside by late afternoon because of the smog drifting over his community from Los Angeles, about 60 miles to the west.

“I grew up very aware of air pollution,” says Reynolds, who was named the western director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in the autumn of 2012. “It was just part of Riverside in the summer.”

Reynolds, who became interested in public policy at a young age, focused on public interest issues while at the Law School. In 1990, he began working as a senior attorney for the NRDC and soon took on a series of cases that involved a relatively new subfield of environmental law: ocean noise pollution. Reynolds successfully challenged the U.S. Navy’s use of underwater explosives and high-intensity sonar. “Sound travels five times more efficiently under water,” he explains. “The increasing exposure to high-intensity sound threatens entire populations of marine mammals with injury and death.”

During the past three decades, Reynolds has litigated cases involving a wide range of pressing environmental matters, including the protection of a birthing lagoon for whales in Mexico’s Laguna San Ignacio and cleanup of a toxic waste dump near his hometown. He is currently focused on a campaign to prevent construction of the Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, a project that he says would poison one of the world’s most valuable wild salmon fisheries and the communities that depend on it.

“I tend to work on things that tap into a level of outrage or passion,” Reynolds says, adding that he also looks for pressing environmental issues that present an opportunity to spur tangible change. “I’m not interested in bringing cases for public relations purposes. I have to believe in the merits of each case.”