The Truth About how the Equal Access to Justice Act Works

It's time to put aside the myths that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies makes money off lawsuits

By Mike Garrity

A recent column erroneously claimed that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies gets rich off the Equal Access to Justice Act for working to keep Montana “high, wide and handsome.” Since Sen. Steve Daines and Gov. Greg Gianforte have made similar false claims, it appears they either don’t understand how this federal law works or are intentionally misleading the public. The Flathead Beacon’s readers deserve the truth.

Our Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right of citizens to sue the federal government for very good reasons. If someone throws a brick through a window, the police enforce the law. But when the federal government breaks the law, citizens are often the only “enforcers” and they have to hire attorneys to represent them in court.

When logging proposals fail to protect our land, water quality, and native wildlife as required by law, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies goes to court to force the federal agencies to follow the law – and because the Forest Service is a serial lawbreaker and our claims are valid, we win those court challenges about 80% of the time.

When we prevail, only the legal fees of the attorneys who represent us get paid. The Alliance has no staff attorneys, and hence, does not get a penny. In addition, before we can challenge the Forest Service, we have to comment on the project and file an administrative objection. The Alliance does not get reimbursed for any of this work we do to try to get the Forest Service to follow the law – those costs are paid for by our members.

If successful plaintiffs could not recover attorneys’ fees, the government could just drive litigation costs sky high to bankrupt citizens who bring forth valid grievances. The simple truth is that the vast majority of the Equal Access to Justice Act pay-outs go to Social Security disability and veterans’ disability claims – such as those who cannot get treatment for health problems caused by exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Likewise, if you sue the federal government because it made a mistake on your social security check or the IRS made a mistake on your taxes, your legal costs are compensated by the Equal Access to Justice Act – but only if your complaints are valid and you win in court.

If our politicians are really concerned about wasting taxpayers’ money, curtailing the Forest Service’s money-losing logging projects would be a good start. The Ripley project alone will cost taxpayers $643,000 to commercially log 17 square miles (10,854 acres) of national forest, including 3,223 acres (5 square miles) of clear-cuts – and the new Infrastructure bill adds another $3 billion on top of the billions the agency already gets to subsidize logging.

Wildfire prevention is often given as one of the reasons for massive clearcutting under the twisted logic that if the trees are gone there won’t be a fire. But this is demonstrably false since most of the nation’s largest wildfires have burned through thinned areas, clear-cuts, and even jumped the mile-wide Columbia River in Oregon – and there are no trees in the river. However, research studies have shown logging has a little beneficial effect on wildfire spread and can increase fire severity.

It’s time to put aside the myths that the Alliance for the Wild Rockies makes money off lawsuits – as well as that logging prevents wildfires. Ordinary Americans have a First Amendment Constitutional right to challenge illegal government actions, and rest assured the Alliance for the Wild Rockies will continue to do just that.

Mike Garrity, executive director
Alliance for the Wild Rockies.

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