Defending the Planet

Earthjustice Makes a Case for the Environment

In a court of law, where rulings are often based on legal precedents, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice often ends up citing the legal precedent of itself. The group, founded in 1971 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, has grown and evolved along with the history of environmental law. Between 1970 and 1976, a number of laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the National Forest Management Act, were passed under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. These acts ushered in a new era of environmental law and provided Earthjustice with the strong legal tools to effect change in the courtroom.

Earthjustice has since gone on to provide free legal representation to more than 600 clients, ranging from large organizations such as The Wilderness Society to minority communities, Native American tribes and smaller grassroots organizations like the People for Puget Sound. Individual contributions and grant money provide for nearly 85 percent of Earthjustice’s income. The remaining portion comes from investments and court-awarded attorney’s fees.

The roadless rule case "has been a historic moment for this organization," says Earth-justice attorney Tim Preso. "Without our work, the courts would have heard no defense at all."© Earthjustice

Environmental groups often use the legal system as one of many means to a goal, but Earthjustice focuses exclusively on defending environmental laws in court, often with the collaboration of other organizations" lawyers. "Earthjustice is an invaluable resource for the environmental community," says attorney Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It has the advantage of being set up to do one thing and do it well."

With nine offices across the United States, Earthjustice has a long list of accomplishments that includes fighting against environmental racism, protecting endangered salmon, preserving water rights for native communities, reducing smog levels and protecting national parks.

Between 1989 and 1992, Earthjustice won a series of precedent-setting victories in the Pacific Northwest, reducing logging of ancient forests in the region by more than 80 percent and protecting key spotted owl habitat. "This was a gigantic case that showed people across the country that Earthjustice was using the law and actually having some effect," says a spokesperson for the group.

After the spotted owl case, Earthjustice and its clients began to see a similar pattern in many areas of habitat. Species were protected, but the lands they depended upon were not. "There has been a continuing debate about the fate of the remaining unroaded parts of the national forests, and the spotted owl case was a reflection of that," says attorney Tim Preso of Earthjustice’s Montana office.

To protect woodlands and species, the Clinton Administration proposed the Roadless Area Conservation Policy, better known as the Roadless Rule, which would prohibit roadbuilding and most logging in the remaining 58.5 million acres of undisturbed national forests. "The term "roadless" doesn’t convey the ecological significance of these areas," says attorney Todd True, who worked on the spotted owl case. "These are the remnants of the incredibly rich, diverse, healthy ecosystems that existed in this country 100 years ago. They are certainly only part of what Lewis and Clark saw 200 years ago. While the acreage involved sounds huge, in truth, it is the table scraps of 200 years of development."

Despite overwhelming public support (96 percent of 1.6 million public comments favored the policy), the Roadless Rule was one of many Clinton policies put on hold by the Bush Administration, whose first days coincided with a suit against the policy filed by the state of Idaho, Boise Cascade and other logging firms.

"We stepped in on behalf of several groups to defend the Roadless Rule, which was a critical move because, as litigation progressed, the government failed to file a single brief to defend its merits," says Preso. "It has been a historic moment for this organization—without Earthjustice, the courts would have heard no defense at all."

The Roadless Rule is only one of hundreds of cases Earthjustice takes on each year. Other ongoing cases include the controversial Klamath Basin drought case, which has pitted farming needs against endangered species, and the group’s current attempts to protect endangered stellar sea lions and the North Pacific ecosystem from industrial fishing. "We look for cases with a broad impact, that will protect resources for real people," says True. "We take those to court and prosecute them as effectively and vigorously as we can."

But Earthjustice attorneys don’t protect environmental laws all by themselves. In Washington, D.C., Earthjustice staffers check the environmental backgrounds of judicial nominees. The group’s "White House Watch" investigates the criminal and environmental backgrounds of nominees to the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Agriculture and other agencies.

"Earthjustice looks for cases with a broad impact, that will protect resources for real people," says attorney Todd True. The group then "takes those cases to court and prosecutes them as vigorously as we can."© Earthjustice

More help comes from students who take part in Earthjustice’s environmental law clinics at Stanford School of Law and the University of Denver College of Law. "A lot of first-year law students want to do something socially progressive, like public health, racial justice or the environment," says Jay Touchton, who runs the Denver clinic. "But by the time they’re in their third year, it’s about money and BMWs. The clinic is an opportunity to fight the change that turns idealistic law students into mercenaries." Students take part in strategy sessions, client meetings and administrative and judicial proceedings. They help prepare briefs, petitions and other submissions to courts and government agencies. Haleakala National Park, as well as wetlands, rivers, streams and more than 50 species, has been protected due to clinic students" work.

The firm also has an eight-member Policy and Legislation team working in D.C. to prevent legislative backlash. "When our litigators win a big decision in court, there’s often an anti-environmental rider to reverse that decision on Capitol Hill," says Marty Hayden of the legislation staff. "We defend those decisions from attempts to overturn them." In the post-September 11 atmosphere, Hayden says anti-environmental moves in Congress are being heralded as national security measures. "One of the more at-risk laws is the Clean Air Act; some fundamental parts of that could be sacrificed on the altar of energy," says Hayden. "Some people are trying to use the current situation to push an agenda they’ve been trying to get off the ground for years."

The nation’s attention has understandably shifted to more immediate concerns, but True says, "The environment is still something we’re going to need tomorrow, and the environmental laws are still on the books. Earthjustice’s role in enforcing those laws is still vital, and it’s something we"ll keep attending to every day."