Earthjustice was founded as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in 1971.
Today, Earthjustice is the leading nonprofit environmental law firm in the country and has represented—without charge—more than a thousand public interest clients.
Earthjustice clients include community-based organizations, national environmental organizations, and public health groups.
"We just got mad!"
— Phil Berry, Earthjustice Co-Founder,
recalling the spark that launched Earthjustice.
Since our founding, a passion for preserving the environment and trust in the power of justice have served as our core values. These fundamental principles, which still guide our organization today, inspired a small group of dedicated attorneys to form what would become the world’s first and largest nonprofit environmental law firm.
It all started in 1965 when the Sierra Club launched a campaign to protect the Mineral King Valley in the southern stretch of California’s Sierra Nevada. A former mining village in a stunning, subalpine glacial valley, Mineral King’s dramatic isolation is buffered by severe winters, the valley’s sheer remoteness, and a harsh vertical landscape. But none of that deterred the Walt Disney Company from envisioning a massive ski resort replete with parking lots, hotels, a complex of chair lifts, and 2 million annual visitors. After unsuccessful attempts to halt the project through political maneuverings, the Sierra Club authorized the filing of its first major lawsuit in 1969 to protect Mineral King from development.
The case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1972. The Sierra Club technically lost, but was allowed to return to the lower courts to try again. It did so and the resort project was blocked pending completion of an environmental impact study. Troubled by the notoriety the case had generated, Disney finally pulled out of the project.
The result of the litigation was the preservation of Mineral King and a landmark confirmation of the public’s right to seek review of environmental disputes in courts of law. Granting private citizens standing in court to defend the environment established the foundation for environmental law as it is practiced today.
Two volunteer attorneys involved with the case, Don Harris and Fred Fisher, along with Sierra Club President Edgar Wayburn, attorney Philip Berry, and the Club’s Executive Director Mike McCloskey, established the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund in San Francisco in 1971, an organization fully independent from the Sierra Club with its own board of trustees, staff, and contributors. In 1997, we changed our name to Earthjustice to reflect our role as a legal advocate for not just the Sierra Club, but also for hundreds of other clients.
From day one, Earthjustice has used the law to even the odds against powerful special interests and to hold accountable those who jeopardize the health of the planet. We concentrate our work in three strategic areas: preserving our natural heritage, promoting a clean energy future, and safeguarding our health. Employing sound judgment and the expertise necessary to take on far-reaching, big-impact litigation, Earthjustice continues to be a leader in helping restore the earth to ecological balance. We have provided legal representation—at no cost—to more than 1,000 clients, ranging from large national groups such as The Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, and the National Audubon Society, to smaller community coalitions, such as the Alaska Center for the Environment and Friends of the Everglades.
Over the years, we added a Policy and Legislative team to craft laws that support and extend our gains, and to help prevent legislative attempts to undermine environmental progress. We created an International Program to address human rights, trade, and environmental issues, and developed a Communications team to focus on public education.