Litigation 101: What does it mean to intervene?

By Dawnell Smith

Federal court rules allow parties to participate, argue, and have a voice in a court, even when not one of the named plaintiffs or defendents in a lawsuit. Not anyone can intervene; just those with a demonstrated stake in the outcome. Let’s use our latest motion to intervene as an example.

Caribou in the Arctic Refuge. Photo by Florian Schulz

This week, we filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit brought by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and the State of Alaska. Our filing on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and 12 allied groups aims to defend the Interior Department’s suspension of oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We are asking the court to participate in this case because our clients have a clear stake in the outcome.

In this case, AIDEA v. Biden, the AIDEA and the state of Alaska ask the court to force the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to allow oil and gas activities in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge — despite serious legal problems with the leasing program adopted by the Trump administration.

The coastal plain is held sacred by the Gwich’in Peoples of Alaska and Canada for sustains the Porcupine caribou herd and the Gwich’in way of life. It nourishes animals from around the world and interconnected communities of life.

Keeping oil and gas industrialization out of the Arctic Refuge further protects these communities by preventing the release of industrial toxins and carbon pollution. The stakes for the health of the Arctic communities are high.

Our motion to intervene in AIDEA’s case is closely related to our own lawsuit challenging the illegal oil and gas program adopted by the Trump administration in 2020.

In August 2020, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Gwich’in Steering Committee and 12 allies charging the U.S. Bureau of Land Management with breaking multiple laws when finalizing a leasing program for the Arctic Refuge. The Biden administration inherited that lawsuit and responded in early 2021 by acknowledging there were serious legal problems with that program and halting all oil and gas activities while it prepares a new environmental analysis.  

The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, a state–owned entity that obtained leases in the Arctic Refuge during the flop lease sale (i.e., no major oil and gas company participated and the sale failed to generate even a fraction of the promised income) on Jan. 6, 2020—filed a lawsuit in November 2021 with the aim of undoing Interior’s halt on activities.  

The right to intervene

Federal court rules allow two ways of intervening in a case. The first is intervention by right, which means a party’s interests in the case are significant and that they have a right to be part of the case to ensure their interests are protected. Even if a party does not have a right to intervene, the court may still give them permission to participate in the case. 

Our clients have significant interests in protecting the exceptional cultural, wilderness, and wildlife values of the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas activities and in protecting the coastal plain for subsistence, spiritual, and recreational use and enjoyment.

The AIDEA lawsuit is also at odds with our clients’ own pending lawsuit, Gwich’in Steering Committee v. Haaland, where the government is working toward addressing the serious legal errors we raised in that lawsuit. AIDEA is asking the court to ignore all those legal errors and allow oil and gas activities to move forward on the coastal plain.

It is important for our clients to be a part of the AIDEA case to make sure all these interests are protected and they have a voice in how things move forward with the case. Intervention allows them to participate as a party in the case.

A voice in court

What matters most is making sure that those impacted by a lawsuit in deep and enduring ways have a voice in court and about decisions that affect land, water, animals, ways of life, and the future. Here’s what a few of our clients said about why intervening in AIDEA’s lawsuit matters.

“We support Secretary Haaland’s suspension order and will defend it, along with our traditional way of life, against this lawsuit attempting to revive an illegal, disrespectful leasing program. We will always protect these sacred lands that connect our people culturally and spiritually.” — Bernadette Demientieff, executive director of the Gwich’in Steering Committee

 “AIDEA bought these leases in the coastal plain in an illegal sale that never should have happened, and was frankly an embarrassment. The waste of state funds on the sale itself and now on ongoing litigation defending their bad choices is absurd, especially given the urgent need for Alaska to move beyond oil and build a robust, diversified, and sustainable economy that serves our communities. The Northern Center remains committed to standing with the Gwich’in in protecting this sacred place from oil drilling, and if that means ongoing legal battles, we’ll be there every step of the way.” — Scott Fogarty, executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center

We represent the same 13 clients in the motion to intervene as in our original lawsuit: The Gwich’in Steering Committee, Alaska Wilderness League, Alaska Wildlife Alliance, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society-Yukon Chapter, Defenders of Wildlife, Environment America, Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Northern Alaska Environmental Center, Sierra Club, The Wilderness Society, and Wilderness Watch.