|This was a profile written for our once-weekly newsletter.|
Never rule out lawsuits if you want to drive change
By David Marston
When John Horning started working in 2000 at what was then called Forest Guardians in New Mexico, the budget was $300,000 and he was one of four staffers.
Now executive director of the nonprofit whose name was changed to WildEarth Guardians, and with a $5 million budget and 35 employees, Horning says the group focuses most on climate change, using tools that range from filing lawsuits to collaboration and restoration.
His group holds onto the club of lawsuits, he says, because “it’s strategically ill-informed to simply abandon the playing field of conflict. I think it’s a problem for the environmental movement.” At the same time, he says, “Who wants to embrace conflict? It’s disruptive… uncomfortable.”
As for the group’s major focus: “We’re helping drive nails in the coffin of the fossil fuel industry.” That big idea — of toppling the fossil fuel economy and moving to a clean energy economy — is picking up speed, especially in The West where states are broadly adopting carbon-free electrical grid mandates. The exception, of course, is Wyoming, which maintains a never-say-die coal economy.
In the North Fork Valley of Colorado, home base of Writers on the Range, WildEarth Guardians has waged a longstanding battle in the courts with Mountain Coal Company, owned by Arch Resources. One coal miner there, who asked not to be named, said of WildEarth Guardians, “They give my bosses fits with lawsuits.”
Early on, WildEarth Guardians focused on ridding the public lands of the West of grazing cattle. When asked about grass-fed beef and the role today of cows on the battered Western landscape, Horning remains a skeptic. “I think we are in the midst of the great reckoning for ranching. Kids aren’t interested. Economics are challenging. Social values are demanding different outcomes for public lands, namely people want more wildness and less domestication.”
This approach divides him from most big-budget environmental groups that embrace ranching and generally try to work from within the framework of longstanding institutions of the West.
“In the context of the mainstream environmental movement,a I think we’ve lost some power as we’ve gained some professionalism,” Horning says. He adds that the organizations’ scientists, lobbyists and bureaucrats “are not skilled in building power for movements, and movements drive deeper change.”
But Horning sees positive changes in the rural West coming from rural electric cooperatives: “I think we should be focused on building a democratized, decentralized and decarbonized energy future. Rural electric cooperatives are a great model of this vision. That’s what excites in part me because it’s solving multiple problems at once—civic engagement, undermining capitalism and addressing the climate crisis.”
Interested in learning more about WildEarth Guardians? Visit them on the web https://wildearthguardians.org