November 2010: Nicholas Churchill Yost '56


Nicholas Churchill Yost ’56 is the 2010 recipient of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Award for Distinguished Achievement in Environmental Law and Policy. The ABA cited Yost, a partner based in San Francisco, CA, of the law firm of SNR Denton US LLP, for his unique record of initiative and achievement in the development of California environmental law as well as his contributions to the National Environmental Policy Act.

In what Yost perceives to be his most pervasive accomplishment, he served as general counsel of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Carter administration, drafting the federal government’s regulations implementing the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The objective was to force government agencies to consider the consequences of their actions in regard to the environment and to look for alternatives with less damaging environmental impact. NEPA now sets the standards for doing business, and when a citizen makes a comment on a draft environmental statement, the government is bound -- under threat of judicial review -- to respond to the comment. Yost notes that these regulations have now been in effect for 31 years, under six presidents, and only one section has been amended during that entire period. The rights and obligations NEPA affords have become embedded in the American psyche. In early September, Yost spoke at the celebration of NEPA’s 40th anniversary on Capitol Hill, along with Congressman John Dingell, NEPA’s House author, and Russell Train, first chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality under President Nixon.

Yost performed a comparatively similar role in the early 1970s in the development of California’s NEPA analogue, the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). As the deputy attorney general in charge of the environmental section of the California Department of Justice, he drafted the amicus brief, forming the basis of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Friends of Mammoth v. Mono County, perhaps the most comprehensive environmental ruling in the state’s history. In short, CEQA now ensures that the environmental impact of projects, both public and private, are now routinely evaluated and weighed before the onset of a job.

Ranked by Chambers-USA as one of the leading American lawyers for business in the field of Native American law on a national basis, Yost also represents American Indian tribes in environmental and natural resources law. He finds this work particularly gratifying as he is often able to help Native Americans seek to achieve economic betterment, thus allowing tribal members to remain on or tied to a reservation while leading economically remunerative lives.

Although Yost has been in private practice the past 25 years, he draws on his experience with federal and state governments and as a public interest lawyer to do pro bono work in assisting nations developing their own environmental laws. He is able to provide countries such as Poland, Uganda, Japan, and the Czech Republic with the perspective of what works and what doesn’t. Yost says, “It is very satisfying to sit down with the person drafting new legislation and offer ideas, which, if persuasive, are then promptly incorporated into legislative drafts.”

Yost’s pro bono work is not limited to helping other countries draft environmental legislation. “I am currently representing both the Guam Preservation Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation as they seek to block the Marines from stationing five firing ranges at Pagat Village, a site sacred to the indigenous Chamarro people of Guam (who represent half the population of this U.S. territory). Pagat is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been named one of the 11 most endangered historic sites in America. Our task is to persuade the government, by discussion if possible, and by litigation if necessary, to move the firing ranges elsewhere.”

A graduate of Princeton University (A.B. Public and International Affairs, with honors, 1960), Yost received his LL.B. from the University of California-Berkeley (1963). He practices under all environmental laws, representing clients before federal and state agencies on environmental matters and Washington advocacy, and handling environmental due diligence and litigation. He currently acts as outside counsel to the congressionally-created federal agency, the Presidio Trust, reviewing the agency’s documents for compliance with NEPA. Yost is a member of the bars of California and the District of Columbia and of the Supreme Court of the United States and of other federal courts. He has litigated at the Supreme Court, intermediate appellate, and trial court levels in both the federal and state systems and has testified at numerous legislative hearings.

Hotchkiss history buffs will certainly recognize the surname, Yost. Nicholas Yost’s father was Charles W. Yost, Hotchkiss Class of 1924 and recipient of the School’s prestigious Alumni Award. “My father and my Polish mother, Irena, spent their lifetimes involved in his career as a Foreign Service Officer, whose many posts included the ambassadorships to Laos, Morocco, Syria, and the United Nations. Dad had been on the U.S. delegation at the founding of the UN in San Francisco in 1945 and returned as deputy to both Ambassadors Adlai Stevenson and Arthur Goldberg before being nominated to the top position by President Nixon. Needless to say, growing up moving from post to post around the world made for a fascinating and sometimes adventurous youth.”

In retrospect and in regard to Hotchkiss, Yost says, “I felt I received the finest education that the time then afforded. Learning to write English sentences under the tutelage of Carl Parsons and Robert Hawkins has served me well to this date, but perhaps the master with the most pervasive influence on me was Bill Olsen, whose daily required essays enlarged one’s imagination -- and were fun besides.”

Yost and his wife, Sandra Rennie, divide their time between San Francisco and Mendocino County, California, where they own and run a pinot noir vineyard.

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