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
Soon Suckling and Galvin’s combination of full-on energy and political naivete -- with a soupcon of arrogance -- infuriated people across the political compass. Critics ranged from New Mexico cattlemen to then--Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, who was struggling to change a pattern of misuse of federal lands without being run out of town on a rail by Old West right-wingers.
“There‘s no question that Kieran and Peter were viewed as huge pains in the rear end,” says Don Barry, who was Babbitt’s assistant secretary of the interior at the time. “They were totally upending and reorganizing the Fish and Wildlife Service priorities, imposing their own sense of priorities based on what the grassroots groups wanted when we were dealing with national priorities. They kept hitting the accelerator with us.”
Nobody would have paid attention to the guys‘ frenetic paper shuffling if it hadn’t been for the one characteristic that truly annoyed the bureaucrats: an ability to win in court that seemed almost uncanny. But there was nothing magical about it. The agency charged with protecting most endangered species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, has traditionally been weak and underfunded. Once the extinction crisis hit, the beleaguered bureaucrats were simply unable to keep up. For Suckling and Galvin, the legal possibilities seemed inexhaustible. There were lawsuits forcing the agency to list species, lawsuits against the agency for missing deadlines (sometimes by decades), lawsuits to force the agency to actually protect the species it had listed but then ignored.
They might not have known it at the time, but by moving the battlefield from the lobbying halls of Capitol Hill to courtrooms, Suckling and Galvin were leaving their counterparts in the dust by simply catching up with political realities. These days, corporate contributions to candidates outpace those from do-gooder organizations such as the Sierra Club by more than 50-to-1. Congress is no longer friendly to environmental legislation; only one major environmental law had passed since the ‘70s, the relatively non-controversial Safe Drinking Water Act. With strong laws already in place, and increasingly complex debates that didn’t scan with the general public, the best bet now is using the courts to enforce environmental laws to the hilt, supported by increasingly sophisticated scientific research.
The Endangered Species Act is widely regarded as the nation‘s strongest environmental law. Suckling and Galvin were among the first environmentalists to wield the law as an assault weapon instead of a rapier. The Center relentlessly hounded the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect endangered species and their habitat, regardless of the threat of political fallout.
In environmental lawyer Mark Hughes, Galvin and Suckling found just what they needed. Hughes had tried for years to convince his colleagues at the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund (now Earthjustice) to bust a move on the Mexican spotted owl. When no action came, he resigned in disgust and founded his own law firm. Galvin, who had a master’s degree in conservation biology, but who is the son of a lawyer, begged, cajoled and charmed Hughes into working for what he and Suckling had taken to calling the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project.
Hughes won an injunction that stopped logging for 18 months on 2.4 million acres of national forests. A judge ordered the U.S. Forest Service to spend that time figuring out how many trees it could cut down without hurting the Mexican spotted owl. It turned out to be a lot less than the Forest Service had in mind. Logging on national forests in Arizona and New Mexico declined 84 percent from 1989 to 2001; much of this shift can be attributed to legal strong-arming by the Center for Biological Diversity, as the group began calling itself.
The Mexican spotted owl case started one of the longest winning streaks in the history of the environmental movement. In a dozen years, the Center for Biological Diversity, which moved to Tucson, Arizona, in 1995, won 80 percent of its cases, roughly twice the rate of most environmental law firms, gaining protection for 288 species in 44 states. It has changed the way 38 million acres are managed in the American West, ended cattle grazing along hundreds of miles of fragile desert rivers, slowed the sprawl of subdivisions, and reduced logging from Alaska to Arizona. Because they deal in protecting plants and animals and because loss of habitat is the most common cause of extinction, the Center has become a one-stop shopping outlet, suing on everything from big dams to the expansion of military installations.
It may sound elementary to make species protection the main thrust of protecting the environment, but, in fact, the Center was making a radical departure from old-line male environmentalists who cared more about conquering mountains than nurturing warm fuzzy animals. Heather Weiner, a Washington, D.C.--based environmentalist, says that until the Center came along, practically the only people aggressively lobbying for endangered species were tough women like her who did battle on the Hill dressed in short skirts and armed with attitude.
Washington, D.C., environmental attorney Eric Glitzenstein, who has litigated on behalf of the Center, believes the group has almost single-handedly pushed endangered-species protection to center stage, edging out more familiar but less pressing issues like pollution, where the big battles have mostly been won. Fearless was the word that kept coming up when Nathaniel Lawrence of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) -- a more conservative Washington, D.C.--based conservation group that also specializes in science and litigation -- talked about the Center for Biological Diversity. “They are, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, the most effective conservation organization in the country,” Lawrence says.