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Fred Fisher, 68; Co-Founder of Key Public-Interest Law Firm

August 22, 2005|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Fred Fisher, a pioneer in environmental law who co-founded the prominent nonprofit public-interest firm first known as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, has died. He was 68.

Fisher died of cancer Wednesday at his home in Inverness Park, Calif., his family said.

"He was the gray eminence, the person behind the scene who kept things going," said James Moorman, the fund's first executive director, who became a lifelong friend. "Fred provided a continuity of leadership that was crucial to the fund growing into a significant environmental organization."

As one of several volunteer attorneys on the Sierra Club legal committee, Fisher fought to prevent the Mineral King Valley in the Sierra Nevada from being developed in the early 1970s by Walt Disney Productions Inc., now known as Walt Disney Co. The proposed ski resort was not built, but the foundation for a nonprofit public-interest law firm had been laid.

President Nixon had just signed the National Environmental Policy Act, and the government "wasn't paying much attention to the things required by that," said Donald Harris, Fisher's law partner and the fund's other co-founder.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday August 24, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Fred Fisher -- The obituary in Monday's California section of Fred Fisher, one of the founders of the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, said a memorial service was planned for Sept. 9. The service will be at 1 p.m. Sept. 11 at the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio of San Francisco.

"We decided to see if we could enforce it," Harris said.

During an interview earlier this year for a video on the origin of the fund in 1971, Fisher recalled "a ferment ... an exciting growth of statutes," including the Clean Air Act in 1970, that provided new tools they could wield.

The pair decided to found a law firm that could be "a new voice for the environment," Harris said. "It wasn't entirely smooth, but, hey, we had a wonderful time and made it work."

Harris recalled Fisher as "an intellectual force, able to find small corners of the law to set great precedents."

Over the last 34 years, the fund has provided free legal representation to more than 600 clients, large and small, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Audubon Society and the Friends of the Everglades, according to the fund.

To distance itself from -- and make it clear the fund was independent of -- the Sierra Club, the fund's name was changed to the EarthJustice Legal Defense Fund in 1997.

The name change "was a difficult and painful experience" with fallout akin to choosing sides in a divorce, but Fisher had an ability to keep things on an even keel, Moorman said.

Fisher remained on the fund's board until his death.

Robert Frederic Fisher was born in St. Louis. His parents taught at Principia, a Christian Scientist institution that offered schooling from kindergarten through college. He had the "dubious honor" of being suspended from the lower, middle, upper and college campuses, said his younger brother, Jonathon Fisher of Great Falls, Va.

Principia College in Elsah, Ill., allowed the renegade non-Christian Scientist to return, and he graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science in 1958. He earned his law degree from Stanford University three years later.

In 1965, he joined the law firm Lillick, McHose and Charles in San Francisco and eventually became a partner. From 1994 until he retired in 1999, he worked at Sher and Blackwell, opening a San Francisco office for the Washington, D.C., law firm.

His specialty was maritime law, and he traveled the world representing many of the major steamship owners. His ability to tell hilarious tales made him a favorite with clients, his family said.

"He had the narrative ear of a short story writer and the timing of a comic," his brother said. "He was a great student of human nature and people's foibles, but a lot of his stories also were self-deprecating."

One of Fisher's favorite cases for the fund in the early 1970s established the public's right to access navigable streams in California even when those streams run through private property. Fisher convinced the judge to climb into a canoe and travel the length of the Russian River so he could see that it was passable.

"It was pretty charming," said Harris, adding that it was the only time in his 40-year career that he saw a judge visit the scene in an environmental case.

Harris' wife, Janet, a longtime friend of Fisher's, said Fisher saved her life on one of their many hiking trips, carrying her to land after she had been pulled out to sea.

Fisher was a serious wine collector who campaigned for truth in labeling on California wines and whose collection of clarets was reportedly once the finest in the Bay Area, Moorman said.

The avid wilderness hiker was especially drawn to the Sierra Nevada and the red rock desert region in Utah and Arizona.

After a classmate from Stanford Law School introduced him to the Sierra Nevada, Fisher said, he couldn't help but become an environmentalist:

"Once you get into the Sierra, and you see it, and you see anything that's a threat to it, you're an environmentalist unless there is something wrong with you," he said.

In addition to his brother, Fisher is survived by his wife of 42 years, Susan, and sons Matthew and Jonathan, all of the Bay Area.

A memorial is planned for 1 p.m. Sept. 9 at the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio of San Francisco. The family suggests that any contributions in Fisher's memory be made to EarthJustice or to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

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