News | August 14, 2019

Going Above & Beyond to Protect Our Coast

Love and loss lead attorney to legal wins

Spending time in the special places that inspire you is key to living a meaningful life. And in Senior Attorney Sierra Weaver’s nearly two decades of practicing environmental law, she’s learned that it’s also key to a fulfilling career.

To understand what draws Weaver to her work as the fearless leader of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands Program, we recently asked her to share her story on why she continues to go Above and Beyond in defending those special places.

“I went to law school to help people,” she says. “I cared a lot about public health and pollution issues, and I really wanted to make sure people could live healthy lives. What I realized as I got into these issues and spent more time in amazing natural places, is that people need inspiration and something to live for, too.”

Though Weaver began her career at SELC in 2001, after a couple of years on staff, she moved to Washington, D.C., to spend a decade as an attorney for Ocean Conservancy and then Defenders of Wildlife. She was working at Defenders when the news of the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion broke in 2010, and she felt sick at the news. Almost immediately, Weaver dialed her former coworkers and friends at SELC to ask: “How are we going to fight this? Who are we going to sue?”

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It wasn’t long before she packed up and headed back to SELC’s Chapel Hill office, where she’s been spearheading litigation and advocacy related to our Southeastern coast ever since. As head of SELC’s Coast and Wetlands team, she oversees more than a dozen attorneys who are developing policy and pursuing litigation across our region. The power and passion she brings to this role is largely thanks to a childhood marked by a love of the beach—at first by choice and later by necessity.

Growing up in a tiny California desert town, when it came to choosing a family vacation destination, Weaver says her father would load up the car, and drive until they’d reached a place where they could roll down the windows and turn off the air conditioning.

“What that meant for us is we always ended up at the beach,” she remembers fondly.

But in early adulthood, her relationship with the ocean would change.

She was just a teenager when her father was diagnosed with chemical poisoning. A doctor informed the family that the chemicals couldn’t be removed, but said to increase her father’s quality of life, they should consider relocating to a place with a cleaner environment, away from the assaultive pollution of industry and agriculture.

So when Weaver was in college, her parents moved out of the desert to the beach town of Cayucos, California.

Moving to a place with a cleaner environment made it possible for her father to live his life to the fullest, “and making sure that environment stayed clean became a passion of mine,” Weaver says, adding, “It became a commitment. I really wanted to make sure the coast was an area that people could go to, not only for restoration and inspiration, but also so they could simply live their lives.”

[My father] was so excited and so proud that I was able to take something that was difficult and challenging for our family and turn it into something to help other people.

Sierra Weaver, Senior Attorney

After moving seaside, her father was able to enjoy the coast for 17 more years. He was able to watch his daughter as she notched legal victory after legal victory, and says Weaver, “He was so excited and so proud that I was able to take something that was difficult and challenging for our family and turn it into something to help other people.”

In her experience, and her father’s, Weaver says it’s those “awe-inspiring” places that make life worth living. “It’s seeing dolphins jump out of the water and whales spout off the coast. It’s knowing that there’s this whole other world out there.”

Protecting those creatures with which we share our Earth is what led Weaver to also become a national expert in wildlife and endangered species issues—plus, she learned by example: After retiring, her father devoted his time to rescuing marine mammals like sea otters and seals.

“I’m sure that influenced my decision to move into wildlife work,” Weaver says.

In the world of wildlife work, she’s perhaps most highly regarded for fighting to protect whales from the horrors of seismic blasting, ship strikes, and fishing gear entanglements, but her passion stretches much further: Weaver has also worked to keep sea turtles from harm as they journey to nesting habitats along southeast beaches, and she’s spent the past six years bringing lawsuits to protect North Carolina’s last wild red wolves from gunshot and agency mismanagement.

No matter the subject, Weaver goes Above and Beyond by continually ensuring that natural public resources remain accessible to all people, “regardless of where they’re from and what they do.  Everyone should be able to enjoy and be inspired by these places.”