The former Mountaineers Foundation is suing the original Mountaineers over who gets to use the name “The Mountaineers” in a court case that could be hard to follow for anyone not familiar with the legacy of The Mountaineers.
Confused? A federal judge has been asked to sort it all out.
The lawsuit outlines a rift between the two outdoors education and conservation-oriented organizations and marks the end of a long partnership. Seattle-based The Mountaineers was founded in 1906 by 151 outdoors enthusiasts who wanted to explore the Pacific Northwest’s wild places.
When that mission began to stray into political areas, something not allowed under the group’s nonprofit tax status, The Mountaineers spun off The Mountaineers Foundation in 1968 so donors could make large, tax-deductible donations and bequests that were often turned over to The Mountaineers.
The Mountaineers Foundation — now called the Keta Legacy Foundation and, for clarity, referred to as The Foundation throughout the remainder of this story — filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Western Washington this month.
As of press time, leaders of The Foundation and their attorneys had not responded to multiple interview requests.
But according to its lawsuit, The Foundation alleges willful fraud in use of the name and has asked a judge to bar its rival organization from using “The Mountaineers” name in charitable fundraising.
“And that particular point we think is really outrageous,” The Mountaineers CEO Tom Vogl said. “We’ve been known as The Mountaineers for more than a century and we’ve been doing charitable fundraising activities since long before they ever were created by our board of directors. And so arguing that we need to stop using our name, we just think is egregious and we’re going to defend that.”
The Foundation, based in Bremerton, says in its filing that The Mountaineers is illegally directing potential donors to send funds to it instead of The Foundation. In support of this claim, The Foundation points to a statement recently released by The Mountaineers that reads: “It is important that our members and supporters of our mission understand that gifts and bequests intended for The Mountaineers Foundation be directed to The Mountaineers at our Seattle address.”
“In fact, after 50 years of use by The Foundation, Defendant now claims that it owns and has the right to call itself The Mountaineers Foundation,” the lawsuit states. “Defendant even filed trademark applications with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and claimed, under penalty of perjury, that it continuously and exclusively used The Mountaineers and The Mountaineers Foundation trademarks in association with charitable fundraising services since as early as 1907 and that no other persons had rights to use the mark in commerce. These statements are false.”
“It’s hard for me to tell what their motivations are right now,” Vogl said. “I was frankly surprised and saddened by them filing a lawsuit against The Mountaineers when all we’re trying to do is to make sure that when donors are making a gift that it’s directed appropriately. So it’s a really simple problem that we’re trying to solve … I can’t understand why they would be unwilling to work with us to try to sort that out in a cooperative way like we’ve done over the history of the two organizations.”
The Foundation is asking the court to immediately halt The Mountaineers’ use of the trademark and ban it from using it in the future. The Foundation also asks the court to end The Mountaineers’ trademark request to the government and force it to turn over all funds raised using the name to the Keta Legacy Foundation.
The Foundation wants all materials produced by The Mountaineers that carry The Foundation’s mark to be destroyed, and it is asking to be reimbursed for legal fees.
The Mountaineers changed its tax status in 2011 so it could begin to accept its own donations. Vogl said the last official interaction between the two groups came in 2016, when The Foundation granted The Mountaineers money for its conservation education program.
“As recently as last year, we were reaching out to try to collaborate with The Mountaineers Foundation when we became aware of these instances of donor confusion that were resulting in misdirected funds,” Vogl said. “It’s always been our intent to try to work with them in a cooperative manner, to try to make sure that we’re honoring donor intent. And so as recently as last year and throughout the time since then, we’ve really been making good-faith efforts to try to find a common-sense solution to make sure we’re doing the right thing for donors.”
It will be up to a judge to sort out the two organizations’ complicated shared history.
Vogl says The Mountaineers has until Friday, Nov. 29, to answer the lawsuit. He plans to file a countersuit.