By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
That the Center for Biological Diversity would be anyone’s idea of a savior belies its roots, which are low-budget and iconoclastic even by environmental-group standards. A dozen years before it would set its sights on Savaikie‘s fight with Newhall Ranch, the Center’s founder, Kieran Suckling, had taken a similarly dramatic left turn. Suckling was in his early 20s, a scruffy intellectual who had been ricocheting around the country on graduate fellowships studying everything from linguistics to mathematics at Stanford, Columbia, UC Irvine and the State University of New York at Stony Brook. In the summer of 1989, at a gathering of the radical environmental group Earth First! in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, Suckling met a fast-talking biologist-cum-politico named Peter Galvin who was studying the precarious existence of the spotted owl in New Mexico‘s Gila National Forest for the U.S. Forest Service. The meeting with Suckling would prove to be fateful, not just for the two young environmentalists, but for the environmental movement at large.
If the Forest Service knew Galvin better, they might not have been so quick to hire him fresh out of Prescott College in northern Arizona. He is dogged and his interests haven’t changed much since bulldozers ripped into the woods behind his house where he used to play cowboys and Indians. “That was the beginning of the high-tech boom on Route 128 outside Boston,” he says. “The pace of sprawl was just unbelievable. For a lot of people in my generation the pace of destruction has been so rapid you‘d have to be comatose not to notice.” Galvin didn’t have to work hard to convince Suckling that the Mexican spotted owl should be more vocation than vacation. Having researched the raptor at Prescott College, he knew the owl was in danger of dying out. The studies he and Suckling worked on that summer helped prove it. Galvin, who had been an Earth First! activist as a college student, wanted to do something right away, file papers to get the owl protected under the federal endangered-species act, stage a protest, something.
Think bigger, Suckling told Galvin. Over the next 18 months, Suckling and Galvin pulled all-nighters at the University of New Mexico library in Albuquerque, gathering evidence that at least 100 species of plants and animals were facing extinction in the high country surrounding the Gila River watershed, a 70,000-plus-square-mile region stretching from western New Mexico to the Mexican border. In the shadowed folds of New Mexico‘s canyon country, Suckling and Galvin stumbled onto a phenomenon that fused the aesthetic, scientific and political arguments of traditional conservation around a hard truth: extinction.
For these two, it was a small step from the Gila a National Forest to global holocaust. The species circling the drain in New Mexico, were, in fact, only a small part of what scientists everywhere were calling an extinction episode rivaling the end of the dinosaur age. The first hints of an extinction crisis had come in the 1980s, when supercomputers allowed biologists to understand entire landscapes rather than a lagoon here or a forest there. As the studies racked up, they realized that the sixth major extinction episode in four and a half billion years of evolution was under way.
It was no coincidence that the appearance of an unfamiliar bird spurred Teresa Savaikie to learn about extinction. She had grown up in a world in which one-fifth of the world’s bird species had already died out. The birds were a portent, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. E.O. Wilson of Harvard and other scientists predict that an equal proportion of the world‘s other species are likely to disappear over the next 30 to 50 years. To see the future, all one has to do is look south: Extinctions in rainforests already have increased to between 1,000 and 10,000 times the usual rate of one species per 1 million species a year. Of the world’s six great extinctions, this is the first caused by humans. The murder weapons are as varied as contemporary life, from unregulated logging in the Ivory Coast to metastasizing condominiums in Florida.
Spurred by the urgency of extinction, Suckling and Galvin began a conversation that has continued almost without interruption for 13 years. Suckling has become the conceptual thinker behind the Center for Biological Diversity, keeping track of a dense library of information and making connections that turn seemingly isolated cases into big-picture causes. Galvin is more a concrete strategist, politically adept and always fascinated by the quirky habits of pink fish and red-legged frogs.
Suckling and Galvin started slowly at first, filing a petition in 1989 to list the Mexican spotted owl on the endangered-species list, and then one to protect the Northern goshawk in 1991. After that came the deluge: 58 frighteningly well-researched petitions to list everything from an orchid called the Canelo Hills ladies‘ tresses to the yellow-billed cuckoo. Unfortunately, their tsunami of petitions landed inside the Beltway just when the Clinton administration was trying to sort through hundreds of previously neglected endangered-species listing petitions approved by the first Bush in his final days. To complicate matters, Republicans had gained a majority in Congress in 1994. Industry-friendly politicians from the West, where the majority of high-stakes endangered-species conflicts were brewing, started whittling away at the Endangered Species Act. Many in Congress threatened to rewrite the law so dramatically that it would become virtually impossible to protect species.