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Our History

Earthjustice is the nation’s premiere environmental law organization, built on the belief that we all have the right to a healthy environment. Since our founding in 1971, we’ve defended that right by using the power of the law to fight for the earth and its inhabitants.

Earthjustice’s roots go back to 1965, when the Sierra Club launched a campaign to protect Mineral King—a stunning valley at the southern tail of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. The valley’s isolation, harsh winters and steep, avalanche-prone slopes weren’t enough to deter Walt Disney from envisioning a massive ski resort decorated with parking lots, hotels, daisy chain chair lifts and two million yearly visitors.

Our founding attorneys had a very different vision. Years of political maneuverings had failed to halt the resort, so a group of visionary lawyers took a risk that changed environmental protection forever—they filed a lawsuit to protect Mineral King from development.

The case climbed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1972 ruled in favor of Walt Disney. But this apparent defeat was actually a thrilling victory: a footnote in the majority opinion indicated that Mineral King’s lawyers could have demonstrated that private citizens who use the valley would have been irreparably harmed by the development.

And that’s exactly what we did. Earthjustice—known then as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund—filed suit again, in partnership with nine plaintiffs who visited Mineral King often and would be harmed by Disney’s development. This precedent-setting action secured standing to sue for private citizens, confirming the public’s right to fight for the environment in court.

The impact of Earthjustice’s first case can hardly be understated.

Since setting a foundation for environmental law at Mineral King, Earthjustice has filed thousands of lawsuits on behalf of the environment and all the life that depends on it. We’ve partnered with hundreds of organizations and thousands of passionate supporters to take on the most pressing environmental challenges of the day, such as climate change, fracking, air pollution and oil drilling in the Arctic. And we’re winning.

Our commitment to defending the right of all to a healthy environment has never wavered, though there have been some changes along the way. In 1997, we changed our name from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund to Earthjustice to reflect our role as a legal advocate for not just the Sierra Club, but also for a large and diverse group of clients. And over the years, we created an international program to address human rights, trade and environmental issues; a communications team to build a groundswell of public support for the issues and cases we take on; and a policy and legislative team to craft laws that support and extend our gains and to prevent legislative efforts that undermine environmental progress.

We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished and are ready to take on today’s environmental challenges in order to establish a just, healthy and prosperous world. The earth needs a good lawyer, and we’re the right people for the job.

“We just got mad. We got mad about the way things were going—forests were being torn up and streams were being polluted—and we wanted to see if there was something we could do about it.” – Don Harris, Earthjustice co-founder, recalling the spark that launched Earthjustice

At a Glance

  • Earthjustice was founded in 1971. It has since grown to include nine regional offices and more than one million supporters.
  • We use the power of the law to protect people’s health, preserve magnificent places and wildlife, advance clean energy and combat climate change.
  • Today, Earthjustice is the world’s premiere nonprofit environmental law organization and has represented—without charge—more than 1,000 public interest clients.
  • Earthjustice clients include community-based organizations, national environmental organizations and public health groups.
  • Our legal team includes almost 100 attorneys and litigates about 300 cases per year.

The Wild Future

President Trip Van Noppen discusses how to manage and protect wild ecosystems in a warming world. That the world is changing is undeniable—but the loss of our natural heritage as a result is an outcome that we refuse to let happen. Our nation's remaining wild places deserve a fighting chance.

Standing to Sue

Author and Historian Tom Turner tells the story of the court case that started out as a last-ditch effort to protect a mountain valley—and wound up laying the foundation for modern environmental law.