Alumni News

As a child growing up in the Shenandoah Valley, Sarah Francisco, L’02, could often be found exploring George Washington National Forest. She developed a deep connection to her family’s farm and the surrounding woods and fields — and a strong desire to protect them.

At Richmond Law, in a first-year environmental law class, she began to recognize the power of the law to protect these spaces. She also discovered the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“Professor [Joel] Eisen said, ‘There’s an organization right down the road in Charlottesville that is bringing the kinds of cases you’re reading about in your case book,’” she says. “I left class, looked at SELC’s website, and said, ‘Oh my goodness. This is exactly what I want to do.’”

Francisco interned with the organization the next summer and landed an associate attorney position after law school. Today, she’s the director of its Virginia office.

Before stepping into the director role, Francisco focused on national forest protection. She worked on cases involving logging in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and gas drilling and fracking in George Washington National Forest.

Francisco says the SELC’s success on these fronts often comes from the strength of established standards and legislation.

“When you go to court, facts are what matter,” she says. “The political debate and rhetoric being tossed around by different sides — all that falls away. The law gives us a chance to provide that clarity and accountability and say, ‘We will not allow degradation of our natural resources to fall below a certain level.’”