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Environmental Warrior . . . and a Really Nice Guy : Profile: Lawyer Joel Reynolds, a gnatcatcher advocate and toll-road foe, wins respect from supporters and opponents alike.

July 11, 1994|DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LOS ANGELES — There are at least two people lurking beneath Joel Reynolds' bearded exterior.

One is the tough legal strategist whose David-and-Goliath battles against the San Joaquin Hills toll road and successful drive for federal protection of the California gnatcatcher have earned the wrath of Orange County developers and government officials who say his tactics have delayed projects and cost untold millions.

The other is the unassuming family man who drives an aging car, writes songs about his 2-year-old son and, even his opponents admit, is the kind of guy with whom you'd pleasantly share a barbecue.

"He's great company," says Hugh Hewitt, a Newport Beach lawyer, well-known conservative commentator and former Ronald Reagan White House staffer who frequently opposes Reynolds in court but still considers him a friend. "He's funny, he's smart, he's very eloquent and he's a damn good lawyer. He just uses those skills in defense of some very obnoxious principles."

Gail Ruderman Feler, an attorney who works with Reynolds on the same side, agrees with everything but the characterization of his principles. "He's one of the top environmental litigators in the state," she says of the crusading lawyer. "He's a terrific attorney who is very good at accomplishing results."

Indeed, working for a variety of agencies since 1980 and, most recently, as senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national nonprofit environmental organization, the 41-year-old Reynolds has been at the center of the some of the state's fiercest and most highly publicized environmental battles.

He was instrumental in delaying the licensing of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant near San Luis Obispo for four years. As much as nuclear opponents loved the delay, utility officials loathed it, complaining of nearly $6 billion in increased construction costs. He fought successfully for the cleanup of the Stringfellow Acid Pits in Riverside County.

And in Orange County he has been largely responsible for two major environmental developments in recent years: the placing of the California gnatcatcher on the federal threatened species list, and the delay in construction of the proposed toll road which, upon completion, will transect Laguna Canyon.

"He's a tenacious advocate," says Richard Jacobs, a lawyer who has opposed Reynolds on both issues. "He knows environmental law, is committed to the interests of his clients, and my perception is that he represents them exceedingly well."

That future wasn't always evident in the youngster growing up in Riverside.

Born in Poughkeepsie, N. Y., Reynolds moved to Southern California at an early age with his mother and father, a professor who later founded the music department at UC Riverside. His father served as the music department's chairman for 35 years and became the university's dean of fine arts and student affairs before retiring earlier this year.

As an undergraduate at the university in the early 1970s, Reynolds majored in music and political science. But his interest in politics as a means of change had already been dampened by the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, one of his early heroes, Reynolds said. And as the young college student began casting about for new causes to embrace and strategies to pursue, he came upon a course in environmental law.

"I became interested in what the law could accomplish," Reynolds recalled. His childhood interest in backpacking, hiking and playing sports had given him an early appreciation of environmental issues, he said. "I liked being in the mountains and going to the beach; I guess the environment is something I've always cared about in a personal way."

After graduating from Columbia Law School in 1978, Reynolds clerked briefly for a federal judge before accepting a job with the Center for Law in the Public Interest. There, in addition to opposing the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant and pushing for the Stringfellow cleanup, he filed a lawsuit forcing the city of Los Angeles to establish a $1-million fund to restore and maintain the landmark Watts Towers.

Later he went to work for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, fighting the placement of toxic waste incinerators in low-income areas and representing poor people in their struggles to preserve their neighborhoods.

Since 1990 Reynolds has worked as a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council, where his most visible cases in recent years have involved the California gnatcatcher and the San Joaquin Hills toll road, a planned $1.1-billion tollway that would run from MacArthur Boulevard in Newport Beach to Interstate 5 in San Juan Capistrano.

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