Mike Sargetakis: Finding Lessons in Nature
by Ari Wolf | July 5, 2023
Mike and his dog Wesley at the Oregon coast. Photo by Sarah Martin.
Mike’s childhood in Utah taught him the value of conservation. His grandparents owned a cattle ranch, but by Mike’s early childhood, they had refocused on the restoration of the wetland complex their ranch was home to. This project eventually became the Swaner Nature Preserve and Ecocenter, which includes over 1,200 acres of permanently protected wetlands and uplands.
Mike’s grandmother, Dr. Paula Swaner, was an early inspiration to him. She championed a theoretical framework called the ”Archetypology of Everyday Life,” which teaches about how the built world and the natural world impact the psyche through the lens of a social justice framework. Mike’s connection with Utah runs deep: as an adolescent, he spent a lot of time exploring the high desert and red rock of Utah, where he found a lot of necessary solitude. Mike’s grandmother, and his own forays into the high desert and red rock of Utah, taught him “how important it is for everybody to have access to the natural world.”
Mike graduated from the University of Utah in 2011. He found his way to an advocacy group called Glen Canyon Institute based in Salt Lake. The Institute raises money to fund studies and research in support of the restoration of the Colorado River in Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon. That’s where Mike’s professional path truly began, where he was exposed to a variety of professional paths in environmental advocacy. Mike chose Lewis and Clark for law school because, Mike says,
“I knew that the only reason I was getting a law degree was to do public interest environmental law.”
I asked Mike to offer advice to other young people about the importance of lawyers, often unsung heroes, in the fight for climate justice. What role do environmental lawyers serve, I asked, and why is it so important? Mike explains that lawyers are often the last line of defense against a bad outcome for individual clients, nonprofit organizations, groups of people, or communities. “If you want to take on the role of a last line of defense, then being a lawyer is potentially a good route.”
Mike points to lots of ways that a lawyer, or someone with a law degree who does not choose to practice, can work in the environmental justice movement. Lawyers can support policy experts, activists, or scientists to do their vital work. Becoming a lawyer, Mike says, is really about getting a set of tools to learn about how to think about and address certain types of problems, using the civil justice system as a way to make change.
Becoming A Lawyer
Mike began to build his reputation in the Portland area during his first years while he got his feet under him. He began building his reputation with Crag during this time, as Crag got to know him and was able to send some work his way.
Primarily, he focused on “plaintiff’s side civil litigation” to establish his reputation and pay the bills by focusing on public interest work. Cases like these, says Mike, include representing people hurt in car crashes, or, more aligned with his training, suing people who polluted their neighbors’ property for trespass. Building his own business was challenging for Mike because he does not identify as an entrepreneur. His advice to anyone else, young lawyer or young entrepreneur, in this position, is to focus on the work rather than on the presentation. Mike says, “It’s easy to feel pressured and like you need to present in a certain way to be seen as professional, but when you do the work, your work will speak for itself.”
Work with Crag
Mike joined Crag’s legal team as an Associate Attorney in January of 2023. Much of his work centers on Crag’s Coastal Law Project partnership with Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition. Mike is heading up Crag’s Coastal Law Project, which includes collaboration with The Surfrider Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to protecting coast, climate, clean water, and beach access. He is also working on a lawsuit involving the Clean Water Act, as well as a case involving Estuary management planning with Oregon Shores, where Mike acts as legal counsel alongside policy experts and science experts.
Advice to Young Folks
One of the sources of hope for our environmental future in Mike’s life comes from his work with young people, including an organization I personally organize with, Sunrise. Additionally, Mike coaches a Constitutional Law team at Franklin High, and he talks a lot to the members of the Sunrise organization at Franklin and the one member of Sunrise who’s on the team. Mike says, “The kids are so plugged in and so aware and have such a comprehensive worldview.”
Some of Mike’s students from the Franklin Constitution Team. Photo by Andi Petkus.
For those hoping to expand their worldviews even further, Mike’s media recommendation for budding environmental activists is Encounters with the Arch-Druid. Mike prizes this book for its analysis of the accumulation of power and the punitive reaction to anyone critical of this process, as well as, so relevantly, ”the flippant way industrialists treat the natural world in the name of progress.”
Ultimately, Mike’s advice to those young folks passionate about fighting climate change is to do what is possible to pursue careers in this field while recognizing the economic realities of a life of public service. Mike encourages all of us invested in environmental justice to consider how to “frame environmentalism as a social issue” in hopes of influencing the broader culture to engage further with our “slow crisis.”
Back to the Wilderness
Given Mike’s busy schedule, a commitment to building personal resilience has been key to keeping balance. He finds ways to spend time outside and reconnect with the community he is dedicated to fighting for. Yesterday, for example, Mike spent time fishing in the Upper Clackamas River, doing what he jokingly calls “hook and line surveys.”
He hadn’t been to that part of the river since the Riverside Fire, Mike says, so it was a deeply meaningful experience when he drove up through the Riverside Fire, “saw the burn scars,” then transitioned to witnessing the beauty of the river. This sense of wilderness is as important to Mike now as it was when he was a child. “Being outside, unstructured time in nature–it’s really healthy, really important for communicating why you do what you do.”
The wilderness remains Mike’s most important source of life-giving hope. “Being outside. Being in the river yesterday–seeing bugs hatch in the river, seeing fish eat the bugs, seeing eagles pull fish out of the river in their talons. Seeing life marching on. Then I know there will be water to drink and the planet will continue. Knowing it’s all out there still.”
Photo of Mike fishing by Cole Taylor.
Ari Wolf was a communications and development intern in 2023.