Earthjustice Goes on Offense With Biodiversity Litigation Center

July 1, 2021, 10:01 AM

Earthjustice will launch a new biodiversity law center on Thursday, giving the environmental group a command center to coordinate legal efforts and fight for stronger protections of endangered and threatened species and ecosystems.

The Biodiversity Defense Program will pull together what until now has been a region-by-region effort for the San Francisco-based group, which has more 150 full-time attorneys and bills itself as the preeminent public interest environmental law organization.

Earthjustice has filed more than 200 lawsuits over the last four years and sued the Trump administration more than 130 times, typically on behalf of or together with other groups. Of the 55 cases that have yielded rulings on the merits, Earthjustice has won 46 of them, or 80%.

Tim Preso, managing attorney in Earthjustice’s Northern Rockies regional office, will head the new biodiversity legal team. He said protecting species and habitats often gets second billing among environmental groups that have made climate change their central concern.

“Thinking about climate separately from biodiversity is both unjustified and a prescription for more problems,” said Preso, who led the group’s multi-year legal battle to protect grizzly bears from hunting in Wyoming and Idaho.

Protecting Ecosystems

Biodiversity campaigns focus not only on protecting species, particularly those threatened or endangered, but also their ecosystems.

While estimates vary, as many as 1 million species of plants and animals face potential extinction, and human impacts on land and oceans are linked to the loss of 83% of wild mammal biomass, and half that of plants, according to a global report co-authored by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Earthjustice is launching its litigation team with Preso; Elizabeth Forsyth, a senior attorney focused on public lands and wildlife; and a third senior attorney focused partly on litigation but more on pushing biodiversity policy changes by the Biden administration.

Environmental groups have warmed to Biden’s early moves in the biodiversity arena, including his pledge to “repeal or replace” a Trump administration rule allowing roads and other development in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest.

A fourth position, an associate attorney, will focus on litigation, Preso said. Earthjustice’s biodiversity legal team also could be expanded in the future, he said.

Litigation Focus

The 50-year-old group is litigation-focused, Preso said, unlike many of its counterparts in environmental advocacy that offer a mix of policy, advocacy, public education, and sometimes litigation.

Other groups active in species litigation include the Natural Resources Defense Council, a key player on clean air and climate change litigation, and the Center for Biological Diversity, which has petitioned and sued agencies for more aggressive action under the Endangered Species Act and pressed the Environmental Protection Agency to fully address pesticide risks to endangered species.

The protection of the grizzly bears is among Earthjustice’s recent successes. That litigation culminated in a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in July 2020 that spared dozens of grizzlies from state-sanctioned hunts.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, said Earthjustice’s move is likely to mean more use of a “sue-and-settle” strategy in which environmental and public interest groups file suit to get agencies to strengthen existing regulations or to force them to regulate more expeditiously. Her alliance represents about 200 oil and gas companies in the Rocky Mountain region.

The approach “takes government resources away from actually protecting and recovering species and puts it into the pockets of lawyers” and has put inordinate focus on the listing of new species as threatened or endangered—rather than on their recovery, Sgamma said.

Earthjustice and other conservation and environmental groups wield a variety of federal laws in battling to preserve biodiversity, including the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and National Environmental Policy Act, which requires detailed reviews examining the environmental impacts of projects.

“The reason we decided that niche really needed to be capitalized on—and hopefully maximized—is because this country has an extraordinary set of powerful environmental laws that are really a model for the world,” Preso said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com; Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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