Our History

Founder and President Emeritus Rick Middleton

As one of the nation’s first environmental lawyers, Birmingham, Alabama native Rick Middleton founded the Southern Environmental Law Center in 1986 to focus on protecting and bettering the place he called home, and the place he loved most: the South.

Thirty five years later, SELC is the largest environmental organization in its region. With roots in its six-state footprint of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia—the organization has emerged as a leader on law and policy protecting our nation’s most basic environmental protections.

When SELC was founded, the region treasured for its iconic natural landscapes like the Southern Appalachian mountains and South Atlantic Coast was largely neglected by national environmental organizations. Though some thought it was a lost cause to advocate for curbing pollution in the traditionally conservative South, Middleton knew differently.

The South needed someone on its side.

With a handful of dedicated attorneys who believed that people everywhere—including the South—deserved clean air and water, Middleton’s labor of love began to flourish.

From SELC’s headquarters in Charlottesville, the organization began honing in on key areas of work. Initially concentrating on protecting the Southeast coast, public lands, and the scenic beauty of the Southeast, the first legal action SELC filed successfully challenged logging and roadbuilding in the Jefferson National Forest.

Then in 1988, attorneys launched the Clean Water Program, followed by the hiring of current Executive Director Jeff Gleason in 1991 to lead a new Energy Program that continues to pioneer the region’s transition to clean energy solutions.

Now more than 80 attorneys and 75 legislative affairs, communications, development, finance, and administration professionals work out of nine offices throughout our six states and on Capitol Hill, enabling the organization to engage effectively on the local, state, and federal level.

These engagements mean you’ll still find our attorneys working in the same places they’ve been for more than 30 years: in town halls, legislative chambers, state courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court—always with the mission to defend the health of our region for all.

“Because of its size, expertise, and capacity, SELC is far and away the best-situated organization in the country to deal with the biggest environmental issues facing our region,” says Middleton. “It’s almost as if someone wrote a script 30 years ago, imagining what the future would be like and laying out a blueprint for the organization that could deal with it.”

Middleton adds, “We know how to do this. When you take the structure we’ve built, the talent we’ve assembled, and the model we’ve developed, we’ve created something extremely powerful.”

To learn more about our past and present work, check out our priority programs and greatest hits.

SELC’s early days.

SELC today.