Defending the Big Wild: Mike Garrity’s Campaign to Protect the Northern Rockies Ecosystem

Boulder River Valley and Absaroka Range, Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

What do you call a fifth generation Montanan who was born, raised, and educated in the Big Sky state, and has dedicated his life to ensuring future generations will have the opportunity to experience the intact ecosystems and vast fish and wildlife diversity of the Big Sky State he so loves? Well, if he’s the Executive Director of the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, you call him Mike Garrity – and his organization fearlessly challenges the Forest Service and BLM to make them follow the law with the ferocity of his Irish ancestors, winning more than 80 percent of their court challenges.

Garrity grew up in Helena, Montana as one of six kids and, as he puts it: “Because I was part of a big family, a cheap form of entertainment for my parents was to take us hiking and backpacking since that was basically free. We ran around in the woods all day up on McDonald Pass where my grandfather had built a cabin and it was heaven for little kids. Spending so much time out in nature was probably the primary influence on my decision to be a dedicated wildlands advocate.”

Indeed, his father was a plaintiff’s attorney who “represented people against corporations and tried to make the world a better place,” says Garrity, who has followed in those footsteps, not by becoming an attorney, but by having no qualms whatsoever about using the judiciary to hold the federal government land management agencies to the letter and intent of the laws intended to protect the rich natural legacy of the Northern Rockies ecosystems.

Way back in 1979 Mike started college at the University of Montana in Missoula, majoring in history and economics. Missoula had several operating lumber mills back then and the logging industry provided a perfect study of the alleged trade-off of jobs and the environment – and the economics that actually drove the process. He saw how workers were basically useful pawns in the industry, but were simply discarded when the mills shut down because the corporate owners had logged themselves out of a future with massive, unsustainable clearcuts.

After graduation Mike first put his economics degree to use working at a Savings and Loan in Missoula and then headed for Boston, Massachusetts, where his sister was living, to work as an accountant for a firm that managed skyscrapers. He had never lived in a city larger than Missoula, and like many Montana kids, wanted to experience what the big city had to offer.

But after three years Mike had enough of big city life and returned to Montana to pursue graduate studies in economics at UM. “My time in Boston and excursions to the New England forests gave me a new appreciation for the vastness of Montana’s wild country. Basically, all the species that were here when Lewis and Clark’s expedition went through more than 200 years ago are still here – in Montana, but certainly not on the East Coast.”

His studies in economics and love of nature led him to Dr. Thomas Power, a well-known and highly respected natural resource economist, who was Chair of the UM Economics Department. “I took some economics classes from Dr. Power and his way of approaching environmental economic issues was a huge influence on my thinking.”

He also decided to take some personal action on protecting the environment. “I’d already decided to send some money to Greenpeace because it was evident the fight for conservation was a fight for our future.” In the process, he learned a lesson about what has come to be called the “Big Green” national groups. “I was inundated with more and more requests for money from their endless mailings. I actually think they spent far too much of their time and effort just raising money instead of doing things to actually improve the environment…which was supposed to be their mission.”

Then, right after starting grad school his Dad sent him an article about the Alliance for Wild Rockies which was headquartered in Missoula. “After reading about the group, I called Mike Bader, the Executive Director, and asked if they needed any volunteers. Bader told me to come over to their office and I eventually became a member of their board.”

Mike Garrity. Photo: George Wuerthner.

Thinking he would pursue a career in academia, he went to the University of Utah to seek a Ph.D. in economics, became an Adjunct Instructor at the University, and taught classes on environmental economics.

While there, Garrity heard that his mentor Dr. Tom Power was going to testify in favor of the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA) – a new proposal drafted by Montanans that would designate all the remaining roadless lands in the Northern Rockies as Wilderness.

But surprisingly, the president of UM told Power he could not testify because he believed it would be viewed unfavorably by the Montana legislature and put future university appropriations at risk. “The incident had a profound effect on me” says Garrity. “And I decided right there and then that I didn’t want to be a professor if it meant my ability to speak out on important and controversial issues would be compromised.”

Being well-versed in environmental economics, Garrity decided to learn more about the political end of environmental policy and took a job with incumbent Congressman Merril Cook, who was running in a primarily Democrat district in Salt Lake City. “He was a Republican, but he was good on the environment, was against removing grizzly bears from Endangered Species Act protections, and opposed Montana’s notorious slaughter of bison that inadvertently crossed Yellowstone Park’s invisible border in search of food” says Garrity.

What he also learned was the power of federal lawmakers. “The first timber sale I helped stop was on the Dixie National Forest in southern Utah,” Garrity recalls. “Mike Dombeck was Chief of the Forest Service then and if my boss asked for timber sales to be pulled, Dombeck got them eliminated. I was shocked at Congressional power. But I remember going to the area after the sale was terminated and walking through the stand where all the trees were to be clearcut. Knowing they would not be chopped down thanks to our efforts made me feel like I had really made a difference. It made me feel happy.”

Meanwhile, back in Missoula the Alliance’s Mike Bader and environmental attorney Tim Bechtold produced a policy proposal they called The Grizzly Bear Alternative, arguing that grizzlies should be permitted to naturally reintroduce themselves throughout the Rockies. Garrity wound up doing the economic analysis “and that,” he says, “was an eye opener.”

Among other things, the Conservation Bear Alternative proposal called for ripping out all the roads in grizzly bear habitat and to prohibit logging in roadless areas. “So I went to the Teamsters and the Operating Engineers unions, to sell them on the idea that ripping out roads would provide good paying jobs, Garrity recalls. “They said they liked to hike as much as me, but hated environmentalists. When I told them the proposal required union wages, however, that got their attention and they eventually endorsed the proposal, even though they remained opposed to environmentalists.” The lesson showed Garrity that even people who didn’t think of themselves as environmentally friendly, could be persuaded to support ecologically beneficial policies.

When he returned to Montana, Garrity took over as the Executive Director at the Alliance. “I told the board my intent for the organization was to go to court to stop illegal timber sales and other bad proposals,” Garrity recalled. “George Bush was president and Republicans controlled the House. That meant the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act was not going to pass, and if saving intact, functioning ecosystems was the goal, the Alliance needed to focus more on reaching the public through the press and stopping illegal agency projects in court.”

As a result of that decision and new direction, the Alliance now sues the Forest Service more than any other group in the country. “We not only sue the most, but we win the most,” he says, pointing to their outstanding record of winning about 80% of their court challenges.

But being outspoken and litigious has a cost – especially as many foundations turned to funding “collaboration” rather than litigation. “In response to the declining funds, I told the board I wanted the Alliance to be a group that spent its money on directly protecting the land, the water, the ecosystems and the fish and wildlife — not just continually concentrating on raising ever more money as so many so-called ‘conservation groups’ were doing” Garrity explained.

Garrity with other groups won a lawauit to protect wolves, but in the end, the other groups wanted to relinquish the win because they thought it might help re elect Senator Jon Tester. Garrity was the only one to oppose a settlement. Photo George Wuerthner 

A lawsuit to cripple wolf recovery efforts by removing the species from Endangered Species Act protections was illustrative of why Garrity chose his path and principles.  “We won the lawsuit,” Garrity recalls. “However, we heard from a bunch of ‘conservation’ groups that if we wanted Montana’s Senator John Tester to be reelected, we had to give up the legal victory we had worked so hard to win.

“We were on a conference call and I was shocked when the co-plaintiff groups said we had to settle the lawsuit to help Tester’s campaign,” Garrity quipped. “But we are non-profit groups under federal law and participating in activities to promote political campaigns was and remains illegal. So I refused to sign off and Federal Judge Malloy threw out the settlement because all the plaintiffs had to agree to forgo the legal win — and I would not give up such an important victory to protect the wolves on the theoretical benefit to a political campaign.”

Tester then went on to slap a rider on a defense appropriation bill delisting the wolves. “That really showed some gratitude toward the groups that were ready to give up their legal victory to help his campaign,” Garrity recalled. “And it’s a lesson I will never forget.”  As it turned out, Tester narrowly won re-election without us giving up the wolf victory.

Ironically, groups that had originally been part of the winning lawsuit, including Defenders of Wildlife and the Sierra Club “eventually sent me letters asking me to contribute so they could ‘save’ the wolves they tried to throw under the bus for a political campaign,” says Garrity.

Today, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies remains one of the most aggressive and successful groups defending wildlands and intact ecosystems in the Northern Rockies. Their successful lawsuits have protected tens of thousands of acres of public lands from roading, livestock grazing, and logging as well as protecting habitat for endangered species like wolverine, bull trout and grizzlies. They continue to promote the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act which would designate more than 23 million acres of new wilderness, as well as much needed restoration of impacted areas.

Garrity still feels good about doing something that makes the world a better place. Wildlands and wildlife – as well as all of us who value them – are lucky to have a fearless advocate that not only gives them a voice in public land decisions, but ensures federal agencies follow the law to protect the last intact, functioning ecosystems of the Northern Rockies.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy