Environmental Lawsuits

  • Public-Policy Reform
  • 1970

Environmental conservation was a part of the Ford Foundation’s program as early as 1952, when it provided seed money to Resources for the Future to conduct economic research on nature issues. Over the years, Ford dedicated tens of millions of dollars to RFF. In the 1960s, however, the foundation’s focus shifted.

Ford had been experimenting with shaping public policy by sponsoring litigation from public-interest law firms like the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (see 1967 and 1969 entries). Now it sought to apply this lawsuit model to the new environmental movement. One of its initial grants supplied $100,000 to the Rachel Carson Fund of the Audubon Society to sue for restrictions on the use of DDT for mosquito control.

In 1970, the question of whether groups dedicated to filing environmental lawsuits should quality as tax-exempt was resolved in favor of the activists, and the Ford Foundation began a period of vigorous financial support. A grant of $410,000 launched the Natural Resources Defense Council, and by 1977 that group had received $2.6 million of Ford money—which it used to sue the Army Corps of Engineers over dams, push for the expansion of the Clean Air Act, and block oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. By 2014, NRDC was raising $129 million per year.

The Ford Foundation also helped launch the Environmental Defense Fund ($994,000 in grants between 1971 and 1977), the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund ($603,000 over the same period), and the Southern California Center for Law in the Public Interest ($1.6 million). These donations built a network of legal institutions that allowed environmental activists to become involved in countless lawsuits and regulatory disputes. Litigation is now one of the most influential tools by which the environmental movement changes society.