Lee Willbanks ’84 JD/MPA Leads Efforts to Protect the Upper St. Lawrence River

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Lee Willbanks

Lee Willbanks is Executive Director, Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper at Save The River. He completed the joint JD/MPA program at SU’s College of Law and the Maxwell School in 1984, and received his undergraduate degree in Urban Studies from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Hailing from Birmingham, AL, he now lives outside Dexter, NY.

Save The River was formed in 1978 to protect and preserve the ecological integrity of the Upper St. Lawrence River through advocacy, education, and research. As the region’s only environmental watchdog group, Save The River takes an active role in River policy issues. Over the years, Save The River has fought to stop winter navigation, advocated against expansion of St. Lawrence Seaway infrastructure, pressed for better spill response planning, sought public accounting of shipping accidents, and campaigned for a water levels management plan that takes the environment into account. In 2004, Save The River was designated the Upper St. Lawrence Riverkeeper and became a member of the international Waterkeeper Alliance.

In his leadership role, Lee manages Save The River’s efforts to collaborate with a number of stakeholders on a new plan to manage water levels on the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario in an environmentally appropriate manner. Lee and three staff work vigorously to bring the principles of sound water management for Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River – ensuring the survival of birds, mammals, and fish, and enriching the lives of human residents.

He and staff advocate for stronger ballast water rules, build programs to educate school children about the St. Lawrence River, facilitate Save The River’s Riverkeeper Monitoring Volunteer Program and BeachWatch Program, and utilize social media and other innovative outreach tools to engage citizens in the protection of the River.

After Lee’s time at Maxwell, he initially worked with the (then) Temporary State Commission on Tug Hill. As he jokes, “I took copious notes at one of my first meetings dealing with environmental matters in New York State; consistently writing the acronym ‘SEEKER,’ having no clue that it was really ‘SEQR’ (for ‘State Environmental Quality Review’ Act).”

He continued to have a number of unique work experiences that shaped his career, from a very brief stint as an attorney to the Congress of the Federated States of Micronesia (and deciding uprooting his family wasn’t the best decision for them) to working in a leadership position in the New York State Senate. He summarizes his Senate experience, “Given the years I was there, from 2008-2010, I witnessed a lot of (chaotic) history being made.” He is now glad to have the opportunity to work daily for the environmental integrity of the St. Lawrence River, through which 20% of the world’s fresh water flows.

Lee thinks back fondly of his time at Maxwell: “My experience at Maxwell was what got me through the joint degree program. It was the humanity of the place in stark contrast to the law school that helped keep me grounded and focused (well, somewhat focused).” He also notes that he frequently recalls ideas or experiences presented in class by John Carroll, and that he enjoyed getting to know Dean Birkhead – “whom,” Lee notes, “I have had the great good fortune and pleasure to renew my relationship with due to his support of Save The River.”

With an eclectic array of professional experiences that led him to his current position, Lee’s advice for current students is especially salient: “It isn’t always obvious how you are going to get to the next big or great thing, but even experiences that seem like interludes (or even intermissions) have value and will inform how and what you do next.”

Lee’s final thoughts? “I am very pleased that Maxwell accepted me into the program so long ago. I think I have gotten much more out of my experiences there than the school has.”

Lee can be contacted at lee@savetheriver.org.

To read more alumni profiles, visit the Office of Alumni Relations website.

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