Defending the Wild
Earthjustice is grateful for your generous support as we fight to protect and preserve our precious wildlands, wildlife, and waters. This past year has brought a series of satisfying wins against extractive industries that cause irreparable harm to people and the planet, with some of our longest-running cases against drilling, mining, and logging interests bearing fruit. But while the Biden administration represents a vast improvement over the lawlessness and chaos of the Trump era, there is still much to be done — and quickly — if we want to create a just and healthful future for all life on Earth. We will never rest in our work to preserve the integrity of public lands, defend biodiversity, and end the destructive extraction of fossil fuels. Please enjoy this small selection of recent Earthjustice victories and important ongoing work.
Preserving the integrity of public lands and wilderness
Protecting the Tongass from logging. In a huge victory for Alaska communities, wildlife, and the planet, in July the U.S. Forest Service announced that it will undo the Trump administration’s last-minute decision to exempt Alaska’s Tongass National Forest from the federal Roadless Rule, which protects around a third of U.S. national forestland from harmful new road-building and clear-cut logging. One of the last mostly intact temperate rain forests on the planet, the Tongass is the traditional territory of the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples, and its towering stands of ancient spruce and hemlock are a vital wildlife habitat and carbon sink.
The Trump-era rollback to the Roadless Rule removed protections from 9 million acres of Tongass wildlands and designated 188,000 acres as suitable for logging. As well as reversing this unconscionable industry giveaway, the Biden Forest Service also announced plans to eliminate large-scale old-growth logging across all 17 million acres of the Tongass, an action which should prevent three upcoming old-growth timber harvests from taking place. This victory follows decades of work by Earthjustice, Alaska Native tribes, conservationists, fishers, and others — and serves as a beacon of hope as we continue to push the Biden administration to take bold action to address the intertwining crises of climate change, biodiversity collapse, and environmental injustice.
Defeating toxic mines around the country. One of the biggest threats to U.S. public lands and to many Indigenous communities is the proliferation of toxic mines that devastate ecosystems, destroy cultural sites, and drain water supplies. Earthjustice is fighting mining projects across the country — including in Alaska, Arizona, Michigan, Minnesota, and Montana — and has enjoyed significant victories over recent months.
This May, in response to Earthjustice litigation on behalf of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, the Back 40 Mine developers relinquished their mining permits rather than continue fighting in court. Proposed for the banks of the Menominee River between Michigan and Wisconsin, the open-pit copper-and-zinc mine would destroy sacred tribal sites, drain wetlands, and create open ponds for acid mine waste that would seep into the river and could contaminate the Great Lakes. Should the developers return with an alternate plan, Earthjustice will be ready to vanquish it once more.
In April a federal court invalidated approval of the Rock Creek Mine, a proposed copper-and-silver mine in Montana’s Cabinet Mountains that would pose an existential threat to the most vulnerable grizzly bear population in the lower 48, degrade threatened bull trout habitat, and drain water from wilderness streams for thousands of years. Earthjustice’s clients included the Ksanka Kupaqa Xaʾⱡȼin — traditional cultural leaders within the Ksanka Band of the Ktunaxa Nation — and a longstanding coalition of conservation groups that has been fighting the mine for decades.
Also in Montana, last year the state’s supreme court dealt the final blow to a proposed gold mine just outside Yellowstone National Park, ruling that the state-issued exploration permits were unlawful and that state courts must be allowed to invalidate them. This concludes Earthjustice’s years-long battle on behalf of conservationists to prevent a mine that would have carved up precious wildlife habitat and threatened the pristine waters of Yellowstone River tributaries.
Defending Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments. Earthjustice has been litigating on behalf of conservationists since 2017 to overturn the Trump administration’s decision to slash Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments by nearly 2 million acres, opening precious lands to mining, drilling, and the looting of centuries-old archaeological sites. Our litigation is currently on hold while the Biden administration reviews the previous administration’s actions. After visiting the national monuments earlier this year, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland is expected to recommend that President Biden restore protections for both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante. We are ready should further litigation be needed.
Preserving and regenerating ecosystems to ensure biodiversity
Protecting gray wolves in the contiguous United States. In January Earthjustice filed suit challenging the Trump administration’s decision to strip Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections from gray wolves across most of the lower 48 states, a move which the Biden administration’s Fish and Wildlife Service is currently defending.
While wolf populations are increasing in some instances, the keystone predator remains absent from important recovery areas, and federal protections are necessary for wolves’ long-term survival. States such as Montana and Idaho have already passed harsh new anti-wolf laws, and in a recent state-wide hunt in Wisconsin some 200 wolves were slaughtered over a three-day period, well above the purported take limit of 110.
As well as battling the ESA delisting in court, Earthjustice is representing wildlife advocates and hunters in a petition to the U.S. Forest Service to issue new protections for gray wolves across nearly 8 million acres of designated wilderness, and we have also issued notices of intent to sue both Idaho and Montana for their aggressive anti-wolf laws.
Defending Hawai‘i’s reefs from the aquarium trade. On behalf of conservation groups and Native Hawaiian fishers and cultural practitioners, last fall Earthjustice secured an important win protecting Hawai‘i’s reef ecosystems: The state’s environmental court closed a legal loophole that had allowed aquarium collectors to extract more than half a million fish and other marine animals from Hawai‘i’s reefs since 2017 without first reviewing the environmental and cultural impacts. However, while state regulators did stop issuing new commercial aquarium collecting permits in response to the ruling, they did nothing about existing permits — allowing an industry that had already circumvented the law for more than three years to continue illegally collecting reef animals for profit. Earthjustice went back to court, and in January this year finally secured a definitive moratorium against commercial aquarium collecting from Hawai‘i’s reefs, with the court making it abundantly clear that existing commercial licenses are illegal without the necessary environmental review, and that no collecting means no collecting.
The ruling is of great significance: The collected animals are important Native Hawaiian cultural resources and are vital to the overall health of the coral reef ecosystem, which is especially important as reefs come under serious pressure from climate change and ocean acidification. Having established, yet again, that commercial aquarium collecting is illegal without adequate environmental review, we are now focused on litigation to ensure that such review discloses the trade’s harmful effects, as required by law.
Protecting marine life from seismic airgun blasting. The fossil fuel industry prospects for oil and gas deposits deep beneath the ocean floor using high-energy seismic airguns, which are towed behind ships in large arrays and fire intense bursts of compressed air into the water. Each burst is louder than a rocket launch — 16,000 times louder than a standard air horn — and they are fired off every 10–20 seconds, 24 hours a day, for months on end. As well as paving the way for offshore oil and gas drilling, these explosive surveys disrupt, injure, and even kill marine animals on a vast scale, impairing their abilities to communicate, feed, and reproduce.
Together with dozens of organizations and thousands of coastal communities and businesses, Earthjustice has been fighting to prevent destructive seismic surveys in the Atlantic Ocean, including in crucial habitat for the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. After two years of litigation and advocacy, during which the oil and gas industry did not manage to conduct a single seismic airgun survey in the Atlantic, in fall last year the industry announced it will shelve plans to prospect the Atlantic using seismic airgun blasting for the immediate future. The broader fight, however, goes on: Along with local and national conservation organizations, Earthjustice is challenging the federal government’s inadequate regulation of seismic airgun blasting in the Gulf of Mexico. This is one of the most intensively prospected bodies of water on the planet, and home to Earth’s only population of Rice’s whales, consisting of fewer than 50 individuals.
Preventing sea turtles from drowning in shrimp nets. There are only seven species of sea turtle in the world, and all of those found in U.S. waters are protected by the Endangered Species Act. Despite this, in 2019 the Trump administration backtracked on a proposed Obama-era rule and implemented a weaker rule that exempted many shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of Mexico and the South Atlantic from using turtle excluder devices — an effective piece of protective equipment that allows sea turtles to escape, rather than drown, when they get swept into shrimp trawler nets. The rule ignores the best available science and was drawn up without adequate environmental analysis or the required public notice. On behalf of conservation groups, in April Earthjustice challenged this rule, which will prevent less than half the sea turtle deaths than the proposed rule had anticipated preventing.
Ending the extraction of fossil fuels that destroy our lands and waters
Protecting America’s Arctic from oil and gas development. This year we finally drew a line under one of Earthjustice’s greatest victories against the Trump administration, when a federal appellate court reaffirmed that most of the U.S. Arctic Ocean and important parts of the Atlantic are permanently off limits to new oil and gas leasing. At issue was an order by President Trump purporting to undo protections put in place by President Obama, prompting Earthjustice litigation which found that Trump’s order was unlawful. That ruling was on appeal when President Biden came to power and, on his first day in office, rescinded the Trump order. In April the appeals court agreed that the ban on oil and gas leasing in these sensitive waters remains in effect without the need for further litigation. This action caps more than a decade of work, and we are proud to say that there are currently zero acres of U.S. Arctic Ocean available for leasing, with 98% of that enjoying permanent protection.
Another significant victory came in December 2020 when a federal appellate court struck down approval of the huge Liberty oil and gas project in the Beaufort Sea, which would have involved construction of a 24-acre artificial island in an ecologically sensitive part of the Arctic Ocean, and the production of some 170 million barrels of oil over 20 years. This far-reaching decision set important legal precedents that help bolster our work to protect federal lands in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the Western Arctic. And indeed, this August Earthjustice secured a big win for Western Arctic public lands, the people who live there, and the climate when a federal judge struck down the Trump administration’s decision to approve ConocoPhillips’ Willow project, which would have been the largest drilling development in America’s Arctic, locking in fossil fuel production for decades to come. This ruling gives the Biden administration the opportunity to do the right thing and drop its unjustifiable defense of the project — Earthjustice will continue pressuring the administration to do just that.
Reforming the federal fossil fuel program. The federal fossil fuel program is a significant driver of climate change, with around a quarter of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions coming from oil, gas, and coal extracted from federal lands and waters that belong to all Americans. There is simply no way the United States can meet its climate objectives without reforming this program. The Biden administration took an important step in the right direction in January when it adopted a moratorium on new federal oil and gas leasing. Under pressure from industry, however, it recently announced it will resume leasing soon. Earthjustice will look to challenge new lease sales in court, while making the case in the court of public opinion that an administration that campaigned on the need to address the climate crisis must take action to reduce federal fossil fuel leasing — especially since that is the portion of the U.S. carbon footprint over which it has the most responsibility and control.
Opposing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Following the administration’s decision to walk back its oil and gas leasing pause, the Department of the Interior will proceed with a previously scheduled lease sale in the Gulf of Mexico this year. Earthjustice’s Oceans team will challenge the sale, which could offer nearly 80 million acres to fossil fuel companies and is incompatible with President Biden’s climate goals. The administration will rely on flawed and outdated environmental analysis that significantly underestimates the greenhouse gas emissions that would result from the sale, and ignores important new information about the drilling risks posed to people, wildlife, the environment, and the climate.
Ending coal leasing on public lands. More than 40% of the coal produced in the United States comes from federal lands, and this coal is responsible for some 10% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. In August the administration finally announced that it will review the federal coal leasing program, a move that had previously been conspicuously absent from its stated efforts to address the climate crisis, and for which Earthjustice and others had been advocating. In response, we agreed to stay our years-long litigation on behalf of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and conservationists to reinstate the Obama-era federal coal leasing moratorium, which was illegally ended in 2017 by the Trump administration. This pause in our litigation will last until January 2022, allowing the Department of the Interior time to conduct its review, but we remain ready to return to court if needed to prevent any new coal leases from being issued.
Earthjustice wields the power of the law and the strength of partnership to defend our planet and help usher in the future we so desperately need — and we could not do this without you. Thank you for ensuring the earth has a good lawyer.
By Nicholas Rowland
This special report was prepared for Justice Partners in Fall 2021. Justice Partners are passionate and engaged supporters of Earthjustice who are serious about making the world a better place. Learn more.