The US lawyers rolling back wildlife protection one species at a time


As political officials at the US Department of the Interior were settling into their new jobs in April 2017, a conservative lawyer named Jonathan Wood started a campaign of emails and calls over a pair of petitions he had filed on behalf of cattle ranchers and business interests.

The petitions asked the department to roll back a key regulation under the Endangered Species Act. The regulation, known as the blanket 4(d) rule, provides threatened species with strong protections, but is also reviled by ranchers, mining interests and developers. Like his clients, Wood, a senior lawyer at the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), wanted to get rid of it.

Ranchers oppose the law because it can limit their ability to access grazing resources on public and private lands and control predators like grizzly bears and grey wolves.

“It has been a little over a year since the petitions were filed and I was hoping to find out whether they’re being considered, or if there’s any additional info I can provide to help the administration make its decision,” Wood wrote to officials, according to documents obtained by the Guardian through a Freedom of Information Act request.

After multiple inquiries over many months, Wood ultimately got an audience with Daniel Jorjani, a former adviser to the billionaire Koch brothers who now serves as the interior department’s top lawyer. According to public records, Woods and Jorjani scheduled a meeting on 9 April 2018 to discuss in detail Wood’s petitions to roll back protections for threatened species.

Little more than three months after Jorjani and Wood met, the interior department would officially unveil a proposal to do what Wood and his clients wanted. The department publicly announced in July 2018 that it planned to eliminate the blanket 4(d) rule as part of a broader effort to water down federal enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. In doing so, the agency garnered national headlines and sent shockwaves through the wildlife conservation community, which denounced the move as an assault on a bedrock environmental law.

But Wood’s efforts are part of a bigger picture. Across the US today, a quiet war is taking place.

On the one hand, environmental activists, lawyers and citizens are struggling to continue the work begun over a century ago by conservationists: protecting wildlife and the environment, and keeping water clean, species intact and wilderness open.

On the other, a network of conservative lawyers, activists and business interests are determined to pursue what they see as equally important American values: the protection of individual rights and the rolling back of government regulations – especially those relating to commercial enterprise.

Their commitment runs deep. Wood has spoken about the childhood experiences that drew him to the cause, describing how he witnessed his father struggling in the real estate business.

“My dad had this dream, from as far back as I can remember. He had a rather large ranch in Texas that he wanted to develop and build small family homes,” Wood explained in a filmed interview for the Liberty Forum. “And when I was 10 he finally decided to see if he could pursue his dream.”

His father went to the county to see what permits would be required, Wood recounted. “He came back with a stack of documents that seemed almost as big as I was at the time, and became completely discouraged.”

This experience appears to have had a lasting impression on Wood, and he has made a career out of campaigning for the unfettered property interests of private landowners, major industry groups and more.

Wood’s firm, the little-known but influential PLF, is a non-profit law firm with about $52m (£40.4m) in net assets as of 2017 and 73 attorneys and staff dedicated to fighting against federal laws and regulations like the Endangered Species Act.

Founded in 1973 by a group composed mainly of Ronald Reagan’s former staff, and headquartered in Sacramento, California, PLF describes itself as “the first public interest law firm dedicated to the principles of individual rights and limited government”. With deep connections to commercial interests, including big agriculture, PLF has long enjoyed funding from some of the wealthiest entities and individuals in the US, who are drawn to the firm’s libertarian free-market philosophy. According to a 1999 article in the Washington Post, Richard Mellon Scaife, the conservative billionaire heir to the Mellon family fortune who died in 2014, provided the group with “at least half the group’s budget in its early years”.

Over the years PLF has received support from ExxonMobil and a slew of arch-conservative foundations. The Adolph Coors Foundation – founded by the Colorado-based family of beer brewing fame – provided the group with at least $580,000 between 2010 and 2016, according to tax documents seen by the Guardian. In that same time period, PLF took more than $600,000 from the Searle Freedom Trust, a foundation set up by Daniel Searle, a now-deceased Illinois-based executive involved in the pharmaceutical and agriculture industries. It has also received donations from entities like the Charles Koch Foundation and Donors Capital Fund, a donor-advised fund that has been described as the “dark-money ATM of the conservative movement”.

Investigative journalist Jane Mayer claims these wealthy foundations, and others like them, have spent huge sums of money in recent decades funding a network of conservative legal, academic and political institutions across the US. According to Mayer’s book, Dark Money, they have done so in an effort to challenge “the widely accepted post-second world war consensus that an activist government was a force for public good. Instead, they [argue] for ‘limited government’, drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry, particularly in the environmental arena.”

The Endangered Species Act, a powerful environmental statute that grants the government immense authority to limit industrial development, was always a key target of this effort to rollback the regulatory state. The law is anathema to some conservatives because it has the power to restrict human activity on entire landscapes in order to protect species like the grey wolf, the grizzly bear and the bald eagle. If an endangered or threatened species lives in your neck of the woods, the US government may no longer allow you to graze cattle, drill for oil, or develop real estate wherever you please.

The Pacific Legal Foundation is not the only right-leaning legal group that targets the Endangered Species Act – others include the Mountain States Legal Foundation and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, both of which have received money from some of the same conservative funders that back PLF.