Throughout the Boise foothills, sagebrush plants border the trails and top the ridges, creating a neutral backdrop for the blue bachelor buttons and yellow sunflowers in the summer and the snow-capped mountains in the winter. Their dusty green leaves and twisted, weathered trunks forge an icon of the West subtler than the imperial American bison. Despite its matte finish, the sagebrush habitat’s existence ensures the prosperity of more than 350 other species.
Advocates for the West, a Boise-based team of lawyers who provide free legal services to environmental nonprofits, is to the region’s natural treasures as the sagebrush is to the species that rely on it, a stalwart shield. Since the organization’s founding in 2003, they’ve won 85 percent of their 150-and-counting cases, which span enforcement of the Clean Water Act to fighting oil and gas leases. Despite some high-profile cases, including ones battling the Trump Administration’s policies, the team at Advocates rarely appears in the media. Instead, they work behind the scenes, elevating the organizations and causes for which they fight.
Laird Lucas, the founder and executive director of Advocates, is anything but a background character. He graduated from Yale with a law degree in 1986 and spent the beginning of his career practicing law at a high-profile firm in San Francisco. In 1993, he turned his attention to public interest environmental law and moved to Boise to run the Idaho office of the Land and Water Fund of the Rockies. After 10 years, he founded Advocates and began building a team to take threats to the West head-on.
“I chose to use my time and energy to try to protect the land, try to protect the rivers,” Lucas told me. “That’s what I wanted to do … It’s the mission that we all here have committed to.”
During its first decade, the organization has grown to include four staff attorneys and two senior attorneys in addition to Lucas. Sarah Stellberg serves as one of the staff attorneys, and she’s currently working with Lucas to challenge the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) decision-making process for oil and gas leases near the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah. The Obama administration paused the lease sales to conduct more research on the cultural and archaeological resources of the area. When the Trump administration came into power, leasing became active again, and Advocates has been bringing suits against the BLM for granting leases without proper public involvement. So far, the lawsuits have paused the leasing.
“We care deeply about preserving public lands and wildlife,” Stellberg said. “Bringing lawsuits and winning them is an effective way to stop terrible things on public lands.”
Some of the biggest threats to the West, Stellberg said, include the leasing of public lands for domestic grazing, oil and gas production, and mining. While many of the lawsuits end in settlements that move progress forward in compromise, Advocates’ approach of presenting the science and legality behind each case they fight has been a winning strategy.
Most recently, in June 2019, Advocates won a case on behalf of the Idaho Conservation League (ICL) that ordered the Forest Service to protect fish from water diversions in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. ICL’s executive director, Justin Hayes, said that when the group brought their complaint to the attention of the Forest Service and pointed to the Endangered Species Act as the legal document requiring their action, the Forest Service refused to act.
“When we get to the point in our advocacy where we feel like we need to reach for litigation or be in the court system trying to find answers to the questions we’re seeking,” Hayes said, “we turn to groups like Advocates for the West because they are litigators. That’s what they do.”
In the nonprofit world, keeping sharp litigators on staff is expensive and inefficient, Hayes explained, and Advocates eases that pressure.
“I don’t have to maintain a crack squad of attorneys for the few times I need litigation,” Hayes said. “We have a symbiotic relationship; we are the issue and process experts, and they are the legal experts.”
Although the pendulum swing of federal administrations makes measuring progress feel like one step forward, two steps back, Lucas said he judges Advocates’ success by how much an issue has been elevated. For example, every state in the West now has sage-grouse task forces, so that when a large project that could affect their habitat is proposed, the developers have to mitigate the risks to the sage-grouse, thus protecting millions of acres of land that was previously vulnerable.
As for the future of Advocates, the team will continue to bring cases to court to protect the wildlife and natural treasures of the region.
“We’re Advocates for the West, intentionally,” Lucas said. “The West has something that really nowhere else in the world has, which is these big wide open spaces that are public lands … It’s our duty to shepherd these lands into the future. I feel like we really can have an impact on that.”