In 1991, environmental activist Kieran Suckling was living in a tiny New Mexico town in the heart of timber and grazing country. His nascent group, then called the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project, finally had a budget--$5,000 for the year to cover all the work of a tiny handful of friends committed to keeping species from going extinct. To save money, they left brief lunchtime messages at federal agencies so the government would have to phone back and pay for the longer calls. To research his economic analysis of the Southwest's timber industry, Suckling hitchhiked from Reserve, New Mexico to Albuquerque with his sleeping bag, spending days in libraries and nights sleeping in the bushes outside them.
Just over a decade later, the group has changed its name, its headquarters and its budget, becoming one of the most effective environmental groups in the West if not the nation at protecting biological diversity.
The renamed Center for Biological Diversity is based in Tucson, Arizona, has a $1.5 million budget, 30 full-time staffers, and offices in New Mexico, Alaska, Montana, Oregon and California. The Center's 7,500 members provide 50 percent of the group's funding to round out monies from foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, Patagonia and the Foundation for Deep Ecology.
The Center is responsible for petitions and lawsuits to list 119 plants and animals under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), and for winning habitat protection on more than 37 million acres on land and nearly 4,500 miles along and within waterways. The group claims credit for nearly half of all habitat protected for the sake of imperiled species in the United States.
The group's success stems largely from its astonishing rate of legal victories. Suckling says the group has filed 215 lawsuits since 1993 and prevailed in 93 percent of those cases. The Los Angeles Times in August 2001 reported that the group has filed 75 lawsuits to force the federal government to protect plants and animals under the ESA; the group won 59 of those suits and lost only one.
The Center mostly uses the ESA, which Suckling calls "by far the most effective, powerful environmental law in the world." First the group gets species under the full protection of the ESA, including habitat. Then it leverages that legal status to "go after industries that are destroying life on Earth." With major activities halted, the work then shifts toward ecosystem-level strategies that "protect millions of acres at once instead of fighting a lot of individual battles."
Over the past decade, the Center has proven its strategy's success. For example, after listing the Mexican spotted owl, the Center shut down logging in the Southwest for 24 months; it's now at 84 percent of historic levels. "Logging in the Southwest has gone from a thriving, deadly industry to a small-scale, seat-of-the-pants operation," Suckling says. Now, in places where large companies always won logging rights, small businesses cull little trees to be used as fuel for pellet stoves.
But creating crises risks backlash. And while the group has made predictable enemies among timber, grazing and mining interests, it also has brought on criticism from others with similar goals.
"If you talk to people who are really in the trenches day to day, trying to make conservation work on the ground ... what they will tell you is the Center's tactics have been so sharply polarizing and divisive that it's made the task of conservation harder, not easier," says one long-time Washington, D.C. activist who declined to be named.
Joan Jewett, communications chief for the Fish and Wildlife Service's (FWS) Pacific region, says overwhelming the agency with lawsuits is counterproductive. …