Not mincing words, Steve Kelly described the Alliance for the Wild Rockies approach to environmentalism in terms of war.
"It's been a battle for policy," said Kelly, of Bozeman, one of the group's founders. "What's the policy around the Northern Rockies?"
For Kelly and the other founders in 1987, environmental policy needed to reflect the "science of ecosystems" that was emerging during the 1980s. Groups were able to use new mapping technology to make their case to the government, or beat it in court if need be.
"The Alliance for the Wild Rockies was born out of frustration with the added understanding of what the science of ecosystems was and what big, wide-roaming critters like wolves needed," Kelly said. "We were very quick to adopt the new technology. We beat the government in adopting technology and it gave us a little advantage."
And when the government didn't adopt policies the Alliance thought apt, it sued. And sued. And sued.
"The law became, not a preferred option, but we realized we had to engage all the branches (of government) to get anywhere," he said.
A recent Government Accountability Office report found that, between 2006 and 2008, the Alliance for the Wild Rockies challenged the U.S. Forest Service over fuel-reduction, or logging, projects more than any other group in the nation -- 42 times to be exact. Many of those challenges resulted in projects being scaled back or scrapped altogether.
This litigious streak has given the Helena-based Alliance a bad reputation in some circles as a group that doesn't seek to find common ground but rather attempts to block every project for any reason it can find. Some environmental groups have even grumbled that the Alliance gives the conservation movement a bad name.
But Michael Garrity, executive director of the group, pointed to the heavy number of lawsuits as evidence that his group is committed to its cause.
"We're doing great. The General Accounting Office put out that report that we sue the Forest Service more than anyone else in the country and we also win more than anyone else," he said. "We actually protect habitat. I think a lot of the other groups, their main concern is to protect their bureaucracy.
"If you look at how big we are compared to how big the other groups are and compare what we do to what other groups do, I think you'll see I'm justified saying that."
Kelly, who still sits on the group's board of directors, said the lawsuits scare donors away.
"Funders don't fund litigation. If you say, ‘We want money to sue the government,' what do you think the answer is going to be? If you want to be a big group with a buttoned-down, nice office, that's something you have to consider," he said.
That said, the Alliance has benefited from some high-profile donors, including Carole King and James Taylor.
"We do have fans," Kelly said. "We're good at what we do. We don't give up easy. ... We don't give in easy. Some would say we never do."
Daniel Person can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2665.