Earthlaw, a tiny Denver-based public-interest group, has won some pretty big court battles on behalf of environmental groups in the West. It helped protect the Preble's meadow jumping mouse, the controversial inhabitant of Colorado's Front Range ("Of Mice and Men," November 27, 1997). It stopped logging in all of New Mexico and Arizona's National Forests to save the Mexican spotted owl. And it filed the first-ever petition under the North American Free Trade Agreement's environmental provisions.
Now Earthlaw is thinking of suing again, but instead of developers or a logging company, the defendant this time would be another environmental law group: Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, formerly the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund. Earthlaw contends that Earthjustice's name is so similar to Earthlaw's that even Earthlaw's supporters can't distinguish which organization is which.
More than a decade ago, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund began cutting its ties to the Sierra Club and decided it needed a new name to reflect its independence. "We felt that an organization really needs to own its own name," says Earthjustice president Buck Parker.
That's one point on which Parker and Earthlaw executive director Mark Hughes agree. But over Earthlaw's objections and after a long search for a new name, in 1997 the former Sierra Club group christened itself the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund.
Earthjustice announced its new title with a slick ad campaign featuring actor Mel Gibson. Earthlaw says it can't do much to counter that type of celebrity pull.
"It's obvious we don't have Mel Gibson in our ads. Instead, we have a forty-year-old lawyer with a painting by his kid in the background," says Hughes, pointing emphatically at a photo of himself.
Hughes acknowledges that Earthjustice didn't steal Earthlaw's name. Instead, he says, Earthlaw pioneered the use of that type of title--a conglomeration of two words evoking images of environmental crusading--thus making Earthjustice's name seem "more palatable" when it was introduced to the public.
"I don't think they chose the name maliciously," says Hughes. "It would just be nice if they just respected us like both groups say we should respect every life form on the planet."
The Earthlaw board of directors may take legal action to put an end to the moniker melee. But it's highly unlikely that Earthlaw would sue Earthjustice before trying again to work things out, says Fern Shepard, chair of the Earthlaw board. "We are two good organizations that do really important and good work," she says, "and neither of us wants to waste our resources fighting with each other."
Earthlaw tried to handle the problem in good humor, says Hughes, and even thought about sponsoring a contest to come up with a new name--for Earthjustice. Another option is considerably less funny. "Ultimately, we might have to change our name and get out of the way of Goliath," Hughes says.
The David and Goliath analogy accurately describes the different scale of the two organizations. Earthlaw has one office, a sparsely furnished, unkempt house on the University of Denver Law School campus. Four full-time lawyers and up to fifteen law students make up the group's staff, and its budget for last year was roughly $300,000. Earthjustice, on the other hand, has nine offices around the country (including one in Denver), and its yearly budget is about $13 million.
If Earthjustice is the General Motors of environmental law groups, as Hughes suggests, Earthlaw is more like a VW van making ambitious cross-country trips on a limited fuel supply. "I think we're irreverent, I think we're aggressive, and we're honest. We're creative about what we do," Hughes says.
Earthlaw officials have had a good relationship with the Sierra Club--Hughes worked for the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund for five years--and the fund's boardmembers helped Earthlaw get on its feet. But that almost makes the situation more awkward. "It's sort of like being disowned by a doting parent," says Hughes.
Some of Earthlaw's backers are confused--and angry. An irate man asked to be taken off Earthlaw's mailing list, says Hughes, because of its repeated requests for money --but it turned out the mail in question was from Earthjustice, not Earthlaw. Such confusion could hurt Earthlaw's fundraising, he adds.
Judges, lobbyists and the media are also befuddled by the Legal Defense Fund's name switch. Hughes spent a day with a National Public Radio reporter who, hours into the interview, smacked his forehead and said, "You're not Earthjustice, are you?"
No, he's not.
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