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Why Mike Garrity is Conservationist of the Year

Defender of the Rockies

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Five years ago, I was sitting at a campfire in the foothills of the Bridger Mountains of western Montana, with a few close friends, sipping whiskey while watching a dazzling sunset dissolve behind the ragged peak of Haystack Mountain on the distant horizon. It was my 50th birthday and there was no better place to mourn the passing of the years.

Most of us circled around that crackling fire of lodgepole pine were grizzled veterans of environmental battles and we looked the part. The decades had taken their toll: Bad backs, hip replacements, busted ankles, arthritic wrists, failing eyeballs. One of us stood out, though. He was lean, sinewy and sported the implacable, no bullshit gaze of an auditor at the IRS. His name was Mike Garrity and he was by far the most dangerous figure on the mountain that night, except, perhaps, for the young grizzly that had been sighted rummaging through a berry patch just up the slope earlier in the week.

Garrity was a professional killer. He killed timber sales and mining projects, grazing allotments and oil wells, dams and ski lodges. Garrity was the executive director what had long been my favorite environmental group, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies: an outfit as fierce, lean, unflinching and fleet-footed as Garrity himself.

As coyotes gossiped under the starlight, Garrity began to talk about his vision for the sprawling region known as the Northern Rockies, a landscape that stretches from northern Utah, up through Wyoming and western Montana, to Idaho and across Hells Canyon into eastern Oregon and Washington. This was a region that contained the last vestiges of the real American wilderness in the lower 48: wild rivers and rugged mountain ranges, ancient forests and high deserts, alpine lakes and vast marshes. This was the last stronghold of the American bison, the gray wolf, and grizzly. It was also a region under siege on all fronts.

Garrity thinks big. He doesn’t merely want to protect high-profile scenic parcels of the region. His goal is to secure permanent protection for all of the untrammelled spaces, some 18 million acres combined, and link them together with biological corridors. This isn’t some grandiose fund-raising ploy geared toward squeezing grants from East Coast foundations or Bay Area tech billionaires with a fetish for bison. It’s the only real option for saving the wild landscapes of the Northern Rockies as functioning ecosystems, instead of what our mutual friend Steve Kelly dismissively calls “postcard ranges.” Toward that end, the Alliance has crafted the Northern Rockies Ecosystems Protection Act (NREPA), one of the most visionary pieces of environmental legislation since the passage of the Wilderness Act itself.

In the meantime, many of those forests, ranges and rivers are under immediate threat from clearcutting, road building, oil leasing, cattle grazing and mining. Most of Garrity’s time and energy are devoted to fending off these destructive schemes, which he does with a relentless efficiency. One former Forest Supervisor in Montana told me that “the Alliance for Wild Rockies was our biggest pain in the ass. They were always looking over our shoulder. Scrutinizing every detail, looking for any vulnerability. Garrity is one tenacious SOB. After a few years of being shell-shocked by appeals and lawsuits, even our biggest timber beast grew to respect the guy. They didn’t like him, but viewed him as an honorable opponent.”

Mike Garrity. Photo: AWR.

Mike Garrity. Photo: AWR.

I first ran into Garrity in the late 1990s when he was working as a staffer for one of the rarest birds in Congress, Rep. Merrill Cook. Cook was a Republican from Utah. No surprise there. Here’s the catch: Cook was also an ardent conservationist. He hired Garrity shortly after Mike finished his course work at the University of Utah for a doctorate in environmental economics. “I figured I could protect more land as an activist, than as a professor,” Garrity told me.

While working for Cook, Garrity helped expose one of the great acts of political flim-flam of Clintontime: the President’s Roadless Area Rule. The Clinton Roadless Rule was a sloppily stitched together executive order issued in 1999 that was designed to placate the environmental lobby which had grown restless with Clinton’s despicable record on the environment. The problem was the roadless rule itself was rather toothless and it left out many hundreds of thousands of acres of imperiled wilderness lands, especially in the Rocky Mountain West.

Merrill Cook was the perfect politician to lead the offensive and Garrity provided him with the ammunition. In congressional hearings, Cook mercilessly raked the Clinton administration officials over the coals, savaging the roadless rule for being a weak and politically expedient measure that left vitally important lands unprotected. In the end, Cook, with Garrity’s guidance, succeeded in winning protection for 250,000 acres of roadless lands in the sprawling Dixie National Forest of southern Utah. With this victory under their belt, Cook and Garrity went after the Forest Service, which was feverishly attempting to log off tens of thousands of acres of ecologically unique old growth forest in Utah, even though the timber sales violated the Endangered Species Act and other laws. Eventually, the Forest Service backed down and quashed the logging projects. It was a stinging defeat for the agency, but a dramatic win for environmentalist in a state where such victories are exceedingly rare.

Garrity has a unique gift for getting unlikely folks to take couragous stances in the defense of the environment. For example, in 1996, Garrity helped convince the Southern Utah Loggers Association to sign onto a letter to the Chief of the Forest Service calling for the protection of all roadless lands from logging. Their logic was two-fold: first, they had a legitimate concern about protecting the environment; second, they argued that timber sales in roadless areas were most likely to be bought and logged by large out-of-state corporations.

Garrity pulled a similar coup in the Northern Rockies when he almost single-handedly convinced the Teamsters and Operating Engineers Unions of eastern Washington, to back a plan drafted by the Alliance that called for reintroducing grizzly bears to Central Idaho and western Montana, as well as protecting all roadless lands and ripping out more than 3,500 of existing logging roads that pose a threat to fish and bears.

In 2002, Mike Garrity became the new executive director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. He was no interloper. In a region obsessed by familial origins, Garrity can boast of being a fifth generation Montanan. That gave him a certain cachet with locals that many other environmentalists who immigrated to the region from the coasts can never attain. Moreover, Garrity has never been bound by political ties to the Democratic Party. From the first day on the job, Garrity proved willing to confront Democrats, like Jon Tester (and Barack Obama, for that matter), whose environmental policies on forests, wilderness, oil drilling and endangered species are often indistinguishable from the Republican ultras.

Bridger Mountains. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Bridger Mountains. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Since Garrity took over the helm of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, he has slimmed the organization down. Made it leaner, meaner and more effective. He moved the headquarters of the Alliance from the rarified atmosphere of the university town of Missoula to Helena, the state capital, where politics is rough-and-tumble. This simple move not only saved the Alliance overhead, but put the extraction industries on notice: the oil, timber and mining lobbies were going to be watched and challenged on their own turf.

For many years, I’ve told people that pound for pound, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies is the most tenacious and visionary environmental group in the country. They don’t blow through money on development directors, public relations staffers or membership coordinators. They fund appeals and lawsuits targeted at stopping the destruction of endangered wildlands and wildlife, from wolves to lynx to bull trout. Under Garrity’s tenure, the Alliance is even tougher. As we’ve seen, Garrity is good a building coalitions, but he is also a talented street-fighter who knows the pressure points of his opponents and how to strike them. It shows in the Alliance’s incredible record of legal victories in a region where the courts are distinctly hostile to most environmental litigation.

Garrity and his savvy cohort of lawyers, activists and citizen ecologists are so good at winning lawsuits and administrative appeals that the Government Accountability Office once investigated them to determine how they did it. The GAO confirmed what many of us knew intuitively: that the Alliance was the Forest Service’s most relentless foe. A GAO audit revealed that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, under Garrity’s leadership, filed and won more lawsuits against the agency than any other organization. In fact, the study disclosed that 28 percent of all environmental suits won against the Forest Service were filed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

Garrity doesn’t just fire off lawsuits hoping they’ll hit something, use the press headlines to raise money and then surrender the injunctions when the political heat gets too intense. They file suits aimed at stopping incursions into wildlands or timber sales that pose immediate threats to rare wildlife. The object is to win. And win they do. Over the past decade or so, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies has won 85 percent of its lawsuits and appeals. That’s an eye-popping record of success, but it also serves as a rather chilling indictment of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management as lawless agencies doing the devious bidding of the extraction industries.

The proof is on the ground. In the past few years, the Alliance has saved tens of thousands of acres from ruin by filing lawsuits as a last resort. Among their string of victories: in Montana, they won a federal court case stopping a 10-year long logging scheme that would have cut 3,000 acres of forest in Bozeman’s municipal watershed; they scored a huge victory in the rugged Big Belt Mountains halting an atrocious 2,289-acre logging project; they won a precedent-setting federal case in the East Boulder Range stopping 650 acres of logging in critical habitat for lynx; they won a key injunction outlawing wolverine trapping in the state and successfully pushed the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose listing the wolverine for protection under the Endangered Species Act; and they scored a dramatic victory by cutting off federal payments for low-level helicopter flights aimed at hazing (read: terrorizing) Yellowstone’s iconic bison herd.

In Idaho, perhaps the most environmentally-hostile state in the West, Alliance won a spectacular victory where they saved 7,000 acres from logging in lynx habitat on the Targhee National Forest near Yellowstone Park. Moreover, court injunction prevents the Forest Service from any future timber sales in 400,000 acres of lynx habitat in the region. And down in Utah, near the extraordinary Grand Staircase-Escalante National Moment, the Alliance swooped in and stopped the Forest Service from proceeding with a vast logging project across 4,000 acres on the north slope of Boulder Mountain, which functions as critical winter habitat for elk and migratory birds.

That’s an unrivaled record of success for any environmental group. It certainly overshadows the paltry achievements of the Sierra Club, an organization with 1.4 million members, 550 paid staffers and an annual budget massive enough to return the $26 million it was outed for surreptitiously taking from Chesapeake Energy, one of the country’s most notorious frackers for natural gas. Recall the Alliance operates on a modest budget with only a single fulltime staffer: Mike Garrity. But winning isn’t about budgets, glossy magazines, or political connections. It’s about guts, smarts and determination. And those qualities are the calling of Mike Garrity and his team at the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

As the embers of our fire began to fade on that June night, a sliver of moon ascended over the dark outline of Sacajawea Peak. Then we heard a faint howl, deep and mournful, that echoed eerily down the canyon. Not the shrill yapping of a coyote. This was an ancient lupine voice that would have been familiar to Sacajawea herself: a primeval call to defend the wild.

Mike Garrity and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies are doing this important work with financial support from the Fund for Wild Nature. The Fund for Wild Nature was created by grassroots activists to help fund the boldest grassroots groups, knowing how difficult it can be for these groups to get assistance from large foundations, and also recognizing how even a small amount of money for these groups can lead to big results. Unlike other foundations, the Fund for Wild Nature depends entirely on donations from the public, which it then redistributes to support worthy grassroots biodiversity protection groups throughout North America. In addition to providing grants, the Fund sponsors the Grassroots Activist of the Year Award as another way to promote bold activism. The Fund is honored to offer the award this year to Mike Garrity. Through his dazzling victories in defense of wildlands and wildlife with the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Mike Garrity demonstrates the power and effectiveness of bold grassroots environmental activism. The award will be presented to Garrity on Saturday at the Public Interest and Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Garrity will speak on a panel of past winners of the award at 9:30 am on Saturday in Room 142 of the Law School.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He is on the board of the Fund for Wild Nature. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net