Water Bug

Lake Champlain has a champion in Kilian

by Rosie Wolf Williams

clf0615Christopher Kilian, vice president and Vermont office director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Montpelier, joined the organization in 1999 as a staff attorney.

It’s easy to imagine Chris Kilian with a fly rod in his hand. The ease and grace that come with the sport of fly-fishing do not end on the river, but move into every aspect of a person’s life, The vice president and Vermont office director of Conservation Law Foundation balances the ebb and flow of work with family, music, and a love for the outdoors.

Kilian grew up with two sisters in rural Glenville, N.Y., just west of Albany. After high school, he headed to the University of Rochester on an academic and athletic scholarship. He became involved in campus activism and joined the Young Republicans at U of R. “I really feel like I got more in touch with myself during my college years,” says Kilian. “I think it was a combination of a very strong conservation ethic in my family, a lot of time spent outdoors, the awareness of the environmental problems that were coming to light in the ’60s, and my family really paying attention to the passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. You wonder how environmentalism creeps into your awareness. It was just something I gravitated toward increasingly as I found my way.”

In his senior year, Kilian came across a brochure about the Vermont Law School Environmental Law Center. “It was one of the few in this practice area, let alone geographic area,” he says. “There was this picture of somebody hiking the Long Trail, and pictures of South Royalton. It just fit.”

He let the idea rest for a year, and worked with his father selling cattle-handling equipment and pesticide application systems for dairy cows. “It was a deep immersion into the dairy economy. I saw the struggles of dairy farmers at that time and the transitions that were happening. It was at the peak of the federal buyout program for dairy herds.

“It’s given me the ability to both be empathetic and understand some of the drivers in that industry, but also have a pretty clear sense myself of the viability and sustainability of that model, particularly in a place like Vermont, which is still an important milk producer. A lot of people are surprised to hear that,” he says, “and surprised that that would lead me to the place where I’m saying we need to move away from this model regardless of how tough that is on people in the near term. Because it’s not good for them. It’s not good for our land. It’s not good for our water.”

He brightens when he speaks of Vermont Law School, mentioning the names of mentors and colleagues. In his junior year, he began sending out résumés. He wanted to work for an environmental agency, but in a rough market he considered opportunities in surface mining and transportation. “I was basically just beating the bushes to try to find work. I wanted to work for government or a nonprofit environmental law advocacy organization. Then I was just happy to get rejection letters. That’s how bad it was. They were just recycling or round-filing the résumé as soon as it came in.”

He replied to an advertisement for a paralegal at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. “It turned out that this person who had the title of special counsel for USEPA at the time had been a Yale Law School classmate of Jonathan Lash. I was Jonathan Lash’s research assistant. Jonathan had been Madeleine Kunin’s secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources. He was the director of the Environmental Law Center at VLS at the time.”

Kilian was offered the job. He would be acting as legal eyes and ears for the Office of Special Counsel with the administrator of the EPA. It was an exciting opportunity for him. He graduated in May, passed his bar exam, and was married in the summer. He and his wife immediately began looking for a place to live in the D.C. area.

When they returned to Vermont, there was a message on the answering machine from a Ned Farquhar. “The message from Ned was, ‘Hi. I’m the executive director of Vermont Natural Resources Counsel. I want to hire a lawyer and Jonathan Lash says I should hire you. So if you want a job working for Vermont Natural Resources Counsel we’re interested in hiring you.’

“So I called Ned Farquhar back and it was a very interesting phone call, because I had been going through these rigorous application and interview processes. He said, ‘Jonathan Lash says that I should hire you. So do you want to work for us?’ I said, ‘Should I come up and meet you?’ It was silent on the other end of the line. ‘I guess that probably is a good idea. Jonathan says I should hire you. I think meeting is a formality, but if you need to ...’”

Kilian drove to Montpelier and met with Farquhar and the policy director. “It was just a done deal right from the beginning. Then I had this choice of staying in Vermont and working as an environmental advocate or going to USEPA for this amazing experience. I would have been basically carrying the administrator of EPA’s bags to the White House and Congress and on his journeys throughout the nation.”

Kilian reached out for advice to Bob Irvine, now the CEO of American Rivers, who was a lawyer at National Wildlife Federation and a key part of Kilian’s network. “Bob said, ‘Which one’s going to be more fun and where do you see yourself more — ultra-urban environment and traveling around the country or in Vermont in that place you’ve come to love, working for what was considered and still is among the strongest statewide environmental organizations in the country? You can’t make a bad choice.’ That really took the pressure off. I went to work for VNRC in 1991.”

Eight years later, Doug Foy of Conservation Law Foundation, who had followed Kilian’s career at VNRC, recruited him to join CLF as a staff attorney. “I felt like I had done what I’d needed to do at VNRC so it was a good time for change. I remain connected very closely to VNRC even to this day.”

George Hamilton, president of the Institute for Sustainable Communities, met Kilian while on the board of the VNRC. “He is one of the most effective environmental advocates I have ever known. He is smart, committed, articulate, and does his homework. I truly believe that Vermont’s as well as New England’s waterways are measurably healthier because of Chris’s dogged determination.”

Kilian acknowledges the “lightning rod” potential of the organization’s work. He mentions CLF’s work to stop construction of the Chittenden County Circumferential Highway. “A lot of credit ultimately goes to Gov. Shumlin, because he basically declared the Circ Highway dead, but his rationale, I think, was the right rationale: We couldn’t afford it, and we couldn’t afford to allocate so much of our statewide transportation money to that one massive construction project at the same time we have roads and bridges that are crumbling.”

CLF’s roles in urging a move away from dependence on fossil fuels and the closing of Vermont Yankee have also stirred controversy. “There hasn’t been technological innovation of significance in the transmission system for 50 years,” he says. “When people come to us and say, ‘You’re saying no to all these things; what’s your solution?’ we’re saying, ‘Let’s invest in R&D because no one has the answer to that question right now.”

Kilian feels his greatest track record of success at CLF is the focus on Lake Champlain. Crea Lintilhac, director of the Lintilhac Foundation, says Kilian has been at the forefront in helping to shape policies and laws regarding water quality. “He has helped Vermonters understand the underlying science and has clarified the legal issues that have made legislative change possible regarding the phosphorus reduction plan required by the EPA for Lake Champlain,” says Lintilhac. She adds that his efforts toward changing government policy on lake cleanup and improving the quality of state waters in general “have been a call to action that will produce a better economy and a healthier environment for everyone.”

Divorced in 2001, Kilian has two children from that marriage: Becky, born in 1995, and Jonathan, in 1997. He met his current wife, Stephanie, at the National River Rally in New Hampshire when she noticed the T-shirt for the Waterwheel Foundation he was wearing and struck up a conversation. It turned out they had been interacting for months by email. “Everyone was telling us we should meet, and we met because of my T-shirt in this gigantic hall.”

They were married in 2010. Stephanie is a professor at The University of Vermont, and they have two children together: Avery, 3, and Ferguson, who was born in January. Kilian is also a songwriter and guitar player for the rock-and-roll band Chris Kilian and the Vermont Brigade. He loves saltwater fly-fishing and trout fishing in central Vermont.

“Vermonters have such a deep community and, I guess I’d call it cultural, societal connection to our natural world,” says Kilian. “It infuses our culture and is at the foundation of our communities. We can do it differently. In fact, I think we’re showing the rest of the country a model that many are trying to emulate. I’m proud of the part that CLF and I have been able to play in that.” •