The Pacific Northwest is known across the globe for its verdant forests, epic hiking trails, and the iconic Pacific salmon runs that have sustained communities for millennia. Often we take for granted how much work has been poured into shaping the Northwest into what it is today. While the list of people, organizations, and communities that have contributed to preserving the Northwest is immense, Earthjustice has taken the fight to a whole new level.
Earthjustice is a non-profit environmental law firm based in San Francisco with nine regional offices. Their Northwest office, located in Seattle, has been at the forefront of battles to preserve our old growth forests, protect our salmon runs, and defend the communities that deal firsthand with unclean air and toxic pesticides. Overall, Earthjustice excels at giving legal voice to those who otherwise may not have been heard.
“There are a lot of things people can do with a law degree, but being part of a non-profit legal organization is using those legal skills to try to affect a common good,” said managing attorney Patti Goldman. Goldman is a non-profit legal heavyweight who has gone toe-to-toe with industry titans for over 30 years. In addition to managing the Northwest office, Goldman spent six years as vice president of litigation in which she oversaw litigation programs for all regional offices.
Goldman explained that part of being a non-profit legal firm is working specifically for the public benefit. Under the internal revenue code a non-profit legal organization can only work towards the good of the public and is prohibited from serving any private interests.“We obtain donations from people who believe in the cause we work for. Sometimes foundations, sometimes individuals. So that is our main funding source.”
Typically law firms will assess a client based on legal viability and their ability to pay. “Can the client pay?” is often the first question asked.“We are asking instead, ‘Does this further our mission and does it promote the public interest?’ so it’s a very different question,” said Goldman. While chivalrous to say the least, how does an organization that does not charge its clients square off against some of the biggest industries in the US?
“We are used to David versus Goliath types of battles. We just do our homework and hone our skills and make sure that we are at the top of the legal profession in putting together our cases and presenting our claims,”explained Goldman.
For example, almost 30 years ago Earthjustice served as the legal arm of a coordinated campaign to protect old growth forests. At this time the industry was rapidly becoming more mechanized, capable of covering more ground, and harvesting smaller trees than before. Earthjustice began enforcing laws against all federal agencies managing public lands and discovered rampant violations. This effort led to legal changes resulting in multiple-valued protection of our forests.
However, these events coincided with a shrinking of the timber industry as a whole. “We are often blamed for more of that than the environment bares,” explained Goldman. While much of the timber industry’s downsizing was already underway, the industry had the resources to fan the flames and dominated the mudslinging.
It was a lesson for Earthjustice to be the campaign punching bag. However the more important lesson was that so many people living in the Northwest care deeply about the environment and the air they breathe. “A lot of people in the Northwest come here because people want to live in a place with a beautiful environment and places to hike, fish, ski, and recreate and so those values are recognized,” said Goldman.
Regulating the widespread use of harmful pesticides in the Northwest has been another hallmark of the Earthjustice commitment to teamwork and legal excellence. Earthjustice and partners challenged the EPA’s approval of multiple pesticides found to cause reproductive defects in male offspring, poison workers, kill salmon, and cause learning deficits in children exposed in utero.
“It took a lot of work. It shouldn’t have had to take all that much, but the staying power, the partners in those situations were farm workers and health and environmental advocates,” said Goldman.
Through advocacy and at times lawsuits, those pesticides have been taken off the market and are prohibited on imported produce. However, for Goldman, “empowering people to be able to make that difference when it wouldn’t have happened without all of that work” was the biggest victory.
Their commitment to the partnerships they make with their clients is what makes Earthjustice so effective. By pairing clients who are engaging in similar issues, they are able to build a base where everyone is bringing special skills, knowledge, and viewpoints to the table.“We don’t do anything in our own name, we don’t go to court in our own name. We represent others and so we give voice to others,” said Goldman.
Despite these victories, the fight continues and Earthjustice remains on the front line. If you love the wild side of the Pacific Northwest, then thank the tireless staff at the nearest Earthjustice office for defending your fundamental right to a healthy environment. And remember, these lawyers aren’t in it for the money. They are doing it because the Earth needs a good lawyer.
By Anthony Vitale
Horizontal Partners: ELAW Gets Around
Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) is not your typical law firm. Get past them claiming a worldwide anything while humbly headquartered in Eugene, and you find this non-profit law firm up to some next level business.
As it turns out, ELAW is what some might call a horizontal network. In other words, they work with non-profit and charitable lawyers in about 70 countries around the planet. Much of what they do is legal advising for countries with limited access to public benefit law support, sometimes even drafting their laws.
To accomplish this, ELAW lawyers must be versed in a variety of laws concerning petroleum, mining, and land rights from all over the globe. Part of what they do is help local communities study laws that have worked in other parts of the world so that they can make the best decisions early in the process. This has been particularly beneficial to people whose lives are bound to a healthy environment, such as fishing and pastoral communities.
ELAW has also been known to bring what they have learned overseas back to Oregon. ELAW was involved a decade ago in studying German energy policy when the country was at the forefront of renewable energy development. This initiative helped bring knowledge and information back to the Northwest which has, in turn, begun a serious commitment to renewable energy production.
With just over a dozen staffers, ELAW demonstrates that it’s not the size of your firm that matters, but how you use it. ELAW has a huge impact worldwide by disseminating information and standing up for those communities most likely to fall victim to corporate scheming and legal manipulation, and they do it without making much noise.
By Anthony Vitale