Utah State University


Economic Impact of WildEarth Guardians Litigation on Local Communities

Wild Earth

WildEarth Guardians is a nonprofit and environmental activist organization that claims their mission is “to confront the threats facing the beauty and diversity of the American West.” They use several strategies to pursue that mission including litigation, science, media, and lobbying. Their primary strategy is to file lawsuits to uphold their interpretation of environmental laws, called “litigating for the wild.” This report includes a statistical analysis of the effects WEG’s actions have on the communities they litigate in, as well as one case study in each of their four areas of interest to illustrate their operations.

Statistical Analysis

Using standard regression analysis we evaluate the effects of activities by WildEarth Guardians on three variables that act as proxies for county economic conditions. Controlling for other factors influencing county economic conditions, we find evidence that interventions by WildEarth Guardians, on average, are associated with lower median household income, but higher county tax receipts. Legal and policy interventions by WildEarth Guardians often generate costs for the affected county. In order to cover those costs the county must generate new revenues, usually through increased taxes. So, not only are local communities suffering from lower household incomes, but they also are forced to pay higher taxes to cover the costs associated with
legal fees from litigation efforts.

Oil and Gas Leases

WEG’s challenge to the drilling industry is titled the “Wild Skies of the West” initiative. A 2009 legal settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) resulted in the EPA proposing new, stronger nationwide air quality rules for oil and gas 2 development. WEG continues to litigate to reduce the amount of drilling across the West, especially in the Rocky Mountain Region including Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Coal Mining

One of WildEarth Guardians’ areas of interest is coal mining. Although they focus primarily on Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which produces 43% of all coal burned in the U.S., they have extended their interests to include the Colorado Plateau with the purpose of having no coal mined or burned in the Colorado Plateau. They are attempting to prevent the construction of any new coal-fired power plants, pushing to retire existing plants, and promoting stronger enforcement of the Clean Air Act.

Grazing Permits

WEG have always emphasized grazing permit retirement. They argue that public lands’ grazing has negative effects on native species, water use, large carnivores, fire ecology, and aquatic ecosystems. They are especially frustrated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s practice of removing Mexican Wolves when they conflict with cows in the Greater Gila Bioregion.

Listing of Endangered Species

Another of the group’s aims is getting as many species as possible listed as threatened or endangered under the premise of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), despite the impacts that listing these animals has on private and public use. WEG have petitioned to have 681 more species listed under the ESA (there are approximately 1,385 species listed currently). As part of their wildlife protection efforts, they have created a program they call, “Saving the Sagebrush Sea,” that hopes to create a system of sagebrush reserves. The argument often stated by the environmental community is that increased intervention by environmental groups through litigation and other activities does not negatively impact local communities is not supported by the data. Taken together, these efforts may jeopardize industries representing $3.98 billion in economic benefits for local economies. These costs do not include the fiscal and budget implications, increase costs to local legal systems, and the cost of new regulations. But, environmental groups seldom justify their actions in economic terms. Instead these groups are primarily interested in emotional, ecological, and cultural goals. Our results show that those goals are accomplished at a cost to local economies.

Download the article: Wild Earth Guardians

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