Our History

California red firs at Mineral King's Timber Gap in the Sierra Nevadas.
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.

Earthjustice is the nation’s premier environmental law organization. We believe that everyone has the right to a healthy environment. Since our founding more than five decades ago, we’ve defended that right by using the power of the law to fight for the earth and its inhabitants.

How the Earth Got a Lawyer

The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund — often referred to as the Inc. Fund — was the model for Earthjustice.

The NAACP was formed to eliminate discrimination against African Americans. But to end segregation, they had to overturn the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court "separate but equal" decision. To do so, a series of lawsuits were filed that were in effect a dialogue between the Inc. Fund and the Supreme Court about what "separate but equal" meant.

The Ford Foundation was a supporter of the Inc. Fund, and, like many institutions in the 1960s, it had a growing concern about the environment.

The foundation thought the model of the Inc. Fund could be translated to work for environmental protections. At the same time, the conservation movement was becoming increasingly visible and active.

Shortly thereafter, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (later renamed Earthjustice) was founded by a small group of attorneys.

The Beginnings of Earthjustice

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.

Sierra Club v. Morton 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.

Take a walk through what was saved at Mineral King.

Breaking Down the Courthouse Door

The impact of Earthjustice’s first case can hardly be overstated, exemplifying the kind of far-reaching, big-impact litigation that has become the organization's hallmark. It ushered in the modern era of environmental law and preserved Mineral King's majesty for future generations. 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 more than a thousand 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 Legislation 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.