SELC founder announces 2019 retirement; longtime deputy director to take the helm

SELC’s Founder and Executive Director Rick Middleton (left) announced he will be retiring in March, when Jeff Gleason, who has more than 25 years of SELC experience, will step in. (© Bill Sublette/SELC)

Rick Middleton, who founded the Southern Environmental Law Center 33 years ago and built it into a powerhouse of environmental and legal protections for the Southeast, announced today he will retire at the end of March 2019. He will pass the reins to SELC’s longtime deputy director and director of regional programs, Jeff Gleason.

From a two-office suite on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall in 1986, Middleton has grown SELC into the largest environmental advocacy organization in the region, with nine offices in six states employing 80 attorneys and a total staff of 140 employees.

It is impossible to overstate how much the South’s environment has benefitted from Rick’s passion, vision, and stewardship,” said Allen L. McCallie, Chairman of SELC’s Board of Trustees. “And we could not have found anyone in the U.S. better suited to succeed our founder than Jeff Gleason. This is the kind of smooth, affirming transition that every organization dreams of.”

The Early Years

Rick Middleton founded SELC in 1986.

Under Middleton’s leadership, SELC has established a reputation of regional, national, and even global impact. SELC has prevailed in the U.S. Supreme Court, protected millions of acres of southern landscapes from the mountains to the coast, spearheaded efforts to move the South from dirty fossil fuels toward a future focused on clean energy, and forced southern utilities to remove more than 90 million tons of buried coal ash that has polluted lakes and rivers.

In addition to numerous victories for the environment, Middleton’s sound fiscal planning and management is reflected in SELC’s 100 percent rating from Charity Navigator, the premier watchdog site that tracks how effectively donated dollars are spent.

Middleton is widely respected as one of the country’s pioneers of environmental law. After graduating from the University of Virginia and receiving a law degree from Yale Law School, Middleton returned to his home state of Alabama to join the Attorney General’s office to enforce the country’s new Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. After several years in Washington, D.C., he later returned to Virginia to launch SELC, which has been home to some of the best environmental lawyers in the country.

The thing that I am probably proudest of is that SELC is known for its people,” said Middleton, a native of Birmingham, Alabama. “I have always sought to have SELC reflect what is best about the South—strong sense of place, sense of community, sense of humor, a roll-up-the-sleeves mentality. It has been very rewarding to have gathered together a special group of people with these shared values and vision to serve on our board, to work on our staff, and to be engaged partners through their giving.”

Supreme Court Win

Jeff Gleason (right) stands with attorneys Blan Holman and Cale Jaffe in front of the U.S. Supreme Court where they successfully argued for utilities to use the best-available technology for air pollution controls. 

A Charlottesville native with an undergraduate degree from Union College and a law degree from UVA, Jeff Gleason joined SELC in 1991 to start and lead SELC’s Clean Air and Energy Program. His accomplishments include playing a key role in one of the organization’s most prominent victories, a 2007 unanimous Supreme Court decision that stopped power companies from extending the lives of obsolete coal-burning power plants without installing modern pollution controls.  Since that time, carbon dioxide emissions in the Southeast have dropped nearly 30 percent.

After assuming the position of Deputy Director in 1997, Gleason provided oversight and coordination for the region’s programmatic work and was the day-to-day architect of SELC’s impressive track record. Gleason, who will come out of a short retirement to assume the leadership role, will return to SELC full-time in January before Middleton’s retirement in Spring of 2019.

I am so honored by this opportunity,” said Gleason. “There is no stepping into Rick Middleton’s shoes—he became one of the first environmental lawyers in the country and he has helped to shape and enforce environmental law over the course of his career. But I’ve got SELC in my bones, too, and it’s an exciting time to lead an organization that is needed more than ever.”

SELC has mobilized on several fronts to challenge the Trump administration’s coziness with polluters and its unprecedented attacks on bedrock environmental protections.

It’s as if the first three decades were spent in preparation for this moment,” Middleton said. “Everything we have worked for and everything we have accomplished has primed us for these battles to champion the South’s environment and all the people who depend on it for their health and wellbeing. This administration presents us with the biggest foe we have faced, and under Jeff’s leadership, SELC will be ready.”