University of Vermont

Jeff Augello Turns ENVS Degree and Semester Abroad into Law Career

Undergraduate alum profile

Jeff and Brooke Augello traveling in Telluride, Colorado
Jeff and Brooke Augello traveling in Telluride, Colorado

Jeff Augello (ENVS ’95), environmental attorney with the National Association of Home Builders, is quick to point out that although he started working on his bachelor’s degree in environmental studies at UVM in 1991 and likes to be considered part of the class of 1995, he didn’t graduate until 1998. But he has good reason!

During the spring of his junior year, Jeff enrolled with the School of International Training out of Brattleboro, Vermont and traveled to the sub-tropical forests of Belize. While there, he studied natural and cultural ecology, which ultimately led to a focus in ethnobotany — the scientific study of traditional knowledge and customs of people related to plants and their medicinal uses. Living in remote Mayan villages of southern Belize, Jeff developed close relationships with traditional healers who possessed a wealth of medicinal plant knowledge passed down from many generations.

When representatives of large pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Merck, arrived in the villages in search of plants to fuel their cancer and diabetes research, Jeff quickly became an intermediary. “Although not a botany major, I knew my plants and related well with the locals. I was a window into Belize’s medicinal plant world for the drug companies,” he explained. His spring semester turned into the whole summer and eventually into a job.

When Jeff returned to UVM, the late Professor Carl Reidel, then director of the Environmental Program, encouraged him to pursue his interests, take his time, and focus his senior thesis on a fresh area of study:  leveraging the economic value of medicinal plant resources to outcompete non-sustainable uses of forest resources. To complete his thesis, Jeff returned to Belize.

At the same time, Merck recruited Jeff to work out of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, where, incidentally, he had grown up. The New York Botanical Garden, a premier botanical research institution, had connections with places all over the world where medicinal plants grew. Half the year, Jeff worked in the concrete jungles of the Bronx and half the year, he spent in the sub-tropical jungles of Belize.

He finally completed his thesis and graduated from UVM with tremendous real life work experience that opened his eyes to many potential career paths. He continued working in natural products drug discovery and traveled to Africa, Central and South America, Hawaii, and other remote corners of the world.

“The big question became for me,” stated Jeff, “how do you compensate developing countries for plant resources and associated intellectual contributions made to western medicine?” He saw that recognition and payment were not always reaching the villages and healers, and for Jeff, it became an issue of intellectual property rights. Inevitably, this all led to his interest in law.

Leaving the New York Botanical Garden and the pharmaceutical firms, Jeff came back to Vermont to study environmental law at Vermont Law School in South Royalton. He earned his professional doctorate, or JD, and his Master’s in environmental law specializing in federal environmental law. During law school, he interned at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Boston and later clerked at the U.S. Department of Justice in the Environment and Natural Resource Division in Washington, DC.  He also gained experience as an honors attorney fellow with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a scientific agency within the U.S. Department of Commerce.

After earning his law degree, he moved to DC, where he continued working for NOAA. His responsibilities included enforcement of statutory and regulatory prohibitions governing management and protection of the U.S. system of National Marine Sanctuaries. Jeff was involved in all phases of civil administrative prosecutions originating in the Florida Keys and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries.

He then left federal government to work for a large home building corporation as a real estate transaction attorney. In 2007, he was hired by the National Association of Home Builders, which represents 80% of all home builders, big and small, in the U.S.

“The Association is the voice of the housing industry on Capitol Hill and in the federal courts.  We advocate on behalf of the industry, including companies that make anything from windows to excavating machinery, and we are involved in litigation, education, and lobbying,” explains Jeff. In particular, he is responsible for developing pro-active litigation strategies to positively influence federal and state court opinions on land use and environmental issues involving the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

When Jeff first moved to DC, he bought a row home built in the 1800s in the “H-Street” district of historic Capitol Hill. He witnessed a neighborhood once dominated by wig shops, liquor stores, and Chinese take-out storefronts transform into a vibrant community shared with bike shops, gastro pubs, and restaurants. A trolley car line — DC’s first trolley car in 50 years — will make its official return to H-Street later this year.  Jeff still lives in the row house, now with his wife Brooke, their young daughter Caterina, and their 90-pound Bouvier named Basil.

Jeff continues to travel and enjoys hiking, biking, and fly fishing. Several years ago, he and his neighbors began growing vegetables and herbs in raised beds in abandoned lots in the blocks near their homes. Since then, community gardening has become so popular that the city has started placing lots into land trusts and creating easements for community gardens, and there is now a seven-year wait list for a plot.