PHOENIX, Ariz. - It sounds like the set-up for a joke: A doctor, a philosopher and a biologist go into the woods, and ...
But nine years later, the coming
together of these three environmental activists
has staggered the timber industry in the Southwest and may force
major changes in grazing practices on millions of acres of public
The trio is composed of emergency room
doctor Robin Silver, philosopher Kieran Suckling and biologist
Peter Galvin. Their nonprofit Southwest Center for Biological
Diversity has forced the federal government to add dozens of
Southwestern plants and animals to its list of endangered species.
After nearly a decade of bare-knuckled activism, they have expanded
the primer on how to use the legal system to torque agencies into
obeying the letter of the Endangered Species
Although they now pay attention to dozens of
species, they were brought together in 1989 by one - the Mexican
spotted owl, that wide-eyed denizen of old-growth timber stands.
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Silver, 45, whose avocation
is wildlife photography, was taking pictures of the owl while
documenting Arizona's endangered species for the state's Department
of Game and Fish. He says he was angry about lack of protection for
the species he was photographing, and that led him to file
petitions and lawsuits on behalf of the birds.
soon encountered an oddball pair of owl callers in the woods -
Suckling and Galvin. Their temporary jobs with the Forest Service
required them to wander the forest at night, calling for spotted
owls. In theory, anyway, the nests they found could block timber
The bird seekers had very different
backgrounds. Galvin, 33, was pulled into the woods following a
teenage bout with cancer, which focused him on saving nature - now.
He was raised on Henry David Thoreau and trained as a
Suckling, also 33, had become
convinced that human culture couldn't remain healthy or sane in a
devastated environment. His interests include linguistics, computer
science and philosophy.
To their shared
commitment to the natural world, Silver brought zeal, Galvin a
scientific shrewdness, and Suckling a sense of strategy. It proved
a powerful combination.
One of the first things
the trio did was bring in Endangered Species Act veteran Jasper
Carlton of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colo.
Carlton showed them his methods of gathering data on endangered
species and his shotgun approach to petitioning the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service to list species - and then suing the agency when
it fails to respond in time.
Since 1989, they
have filed close to 100 lawsuits, with roughly an 80 percent
success record. Their lawsuits and appeals have forced the U.S.
Forest Service to rewrite every forest plan in the Southwest and,
in the process, have shut down the timber industry for months at a
time (HCN, 8/5/96).
Paul Fink, forester for the
Forest Service, says the agency "didn't do anything for 18 months'
in 1996 and 1997 because of litigation and appeals. The dramatic
fall in timber sold on the national forests reveals the
effectiveness of the Southwest Center and other groups, including
Forest Guardians in Santa Fe, N.M.
Region 3 (national forests in Arizona and New Mexico) sold 320
million board-feet of timber. By 1995, that had dropped to 90
Then in August 1995, a federal judge ordered
the 11 national forests in the region to stop all logging until
their forest plans adequately protected the Mexican spotted owl.
When the moratorium ended in 1996, annual timber sale volume had
plummeted to just 32.7 mbf.
The center's staffers
rely on research they do, or that is done for them by a network of
supportive scientists. Some of the scientific aid they get comes to
The center's strategy: to identify
the most endangered species in the Southwest, and then create a
legal "train wreck" to block the logging, grazing and other
activities that they say harm those species. In the end, they hope
their hail of lawsuits will tilt the balance away from ranching,
logging and mining in favor of wildlife and habitat
"One of the historical and constantly
repeated errors of the environmental movement," says Suckling,
talking in the center's Tucson office, "is to think you're going to
get incremental change by negotiating from a position of weakness.
We strongly believe that social change does not come without social
stress. These agencies are not going to fundamentally change their
approach to managing public lands unless they, themselves,
recognize they have to change. That's what the legal train wreck
The center has its fans within the
mainstream environmental movement.
certainly had a huge impact on what was an out-of-control logging
program in the national forests," says Rob Smith, the Sierra Club's
Southwest staff director. "They're very focused on the Southwest
and on endangered plants and animals, and no one else has put this
many people and this much effort into such a focused way ... We're
just very lucky they showed up when they did."
But they also have critics, who say the center's
all-or-nothing approach destroys without attempting to reform the
traditional economies of the Southwest. The three men have received
death threats, been ejected from public meetings, and earned the
enmity of many loggers, ranchers, bureaucrats and elected
One Justice Department lawyer lunged
across a conference table and attacked a Southwest Center lawyer
during a negotiation session. Silver's home in Phoenix has been
repeatedly broken into. He now lives behind bars, protected by a
state-of-the-art alarm system.
that the center's relentless lawsuits, uncompromising rhetoric and
sometimes scathing personal attacks have polarized the debate and
embittered opponents. They also say the center's actions have
stoked moves by Congress to disembowel the Endangered Species
"They're always provoking confrontation,
even when the other side is willing to negotiate," said one
environmental activist, who asked not to be named. "The purpose of
hitting the mule over the head with the two-by-four is to get its
attention. Once he's looking at you, you can stop with the stick."
C.B. "Doc" Lane, a spokesman for the Arizona
Cattle Growers' Association, has few kind words for the Southwest
Center: "They have no intention of helping with the debate," the
former rancher says. "It's my sense that their intent is to make
money filing lawsuits. This has nothing to do with the streams, or
the ecology, or anything else. They object to commercial activities
on any land in the state that's not private - and in some cases,
such as the San Pedro, on private land as well. It's a whole
different mind-set from what capitalism is founded on."
"They've certainly tied things up," says Pat
Jackson, the Forest Service's regional appeals and litigation
officer for the Southwestern region.
their agenda, they're certainly doing it," Jackson continues. "I
think that some of the changes that have come out of the goshawk
and the owl work have been good, but they've taken far too long to
develop - principally because of the challenges from the Southwest
Center. They made a two-year process into a four-year process in
terms of getting forest plans amended.
Jackson believes, "they've had very little positive impact. They
cause the agency to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy
and effort in ways that are not very fruitful. If they came to the
table and sat down with us and worked through the projects and
participated with us in a constructive way, it would be much
better. Litigation is the least efficient way we can go about
solving our problems."
Suckling, Galvin and
Silver maintain that with more than 90 percent of the old-growth
forests and Southwestern riparian areas already gone or degraded,
there's no margin for compromise. More important, they say, an
Endangered Species Act that's never invoked is indistinguishable
from one that has been
From a shack to four
The Southwest Center for Biological
Diversity started out in a shack in New Mexico, its fax machine
powered by the sun. At first, Suckling and Galvin mounted their
assault on the bureaucracy financed largely by Silver's pay as an
emergency room doctor in Phoenix.
The center has
since picked up 4,000 members; offices in Tucson, Phoenix, San
Diego, Calif., and Silver City, N.M.; and an annual budget of
$334,000. Half the money comes from donations and membership dues,
a quarter from various foundations, and the rest from contracts
with other environmental groups for whom they provide research or
The center's founders are backed by
16 biologists, land planners, ecologists and activists who often
work as long as 12 hours a day for about $1,000 a
The range of activities is bewildering.
Currently, biologists from the Southwest Center are working with
the Forest Service to restore up to 20,000 acres of public forests
to something approaching "natural" conditions, through tree
thinning, duff removal, cattle removal, planting of native grasses
and restoring natural fire regimes.
cooperating with the Forest Service in one place, the center is in
court in others, seeking to lower Lake Mead, whose waters threaten
the nests of the Southwestern willow flycatcher; to curtail
groundwater pumping that it says threatens the San Pedro River; and
to prevent moviemaker Steven Spielberg and friends from developing
real estate in a California wetlands. It is also trying to force
designation of critical habitat for the loach minnow and spikedace
in the Southwest, for the short-leaved Dudleya plant in San Diego
County, and for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl and the Huachuca
water umbel in Arizona.
The center also triggered
an international investigation into the plight of the San Pedro
River under the terms of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade
Agreement (HCN, 3/17/97).
Center activists can be
audacious on more than one level. Venturing into environmental
theater, the group paid a musician to write an "eco-opera," then
cast 117 kids from a predominantly Hispanic elementary school in
Tucson to star in the show. Staffers are unabashed
headline-hunters. Dressing Robin Silver up as Santa Claus, they
drew news cameras to cover a satirical press conference targeting
then-Arizona Gov. Fife Symington, whose illegal real estate
dealings have since earned him a prison sentence. Center activists
joined a group of drum-beating Apache protesters in occupying a
University of Arizona observatory to protest the construction of a
telescope on Mount Graham (HCN,
The center's founders each offer a unique
view on how they became the agents of environmental change in the
"It's the science," says Peter Galvin,
who has a master's degree in conservation biology. "The science is
out there that tells us what is wrong. There is this incredible
research community in North America that has produced studies that
sit on the shelves because of the tremendous gap between science
and policy. We try to assess the area where the gap is biggest
between science and policy, and that's the area we're going to home
Spotting the opening for a lawsuit is
"Peter initiates a lot of this
stuff in this chaotic, creative fashion," says Suckling. "Peter is
always thinking up the next new angle - the new point of attack, to
the point where we can't even keep up. If we could implement
everything that Peter could think of, we could bring industrial
civilization to its knees. We always joke that we should just get
Peter a van. He could drive around and look out the window and spot
illegalities - like birders find hummingbirds."
Galvin says the center's success comes from
focusing on winnable lawsuits. "We only take on the most drastic
biological situations, where the facts are overwhelmingly apparent.
There are hundreds of thousands of environmental violations every
year, but just because it's illegal doesn't mean it can be brought
to justice. For every lawsuit we file, there are 20 lawsuits we
Robin Silver, still the godfather
of the group, attended the University of Arizona on a tennis
scholarship, switched to judo, attended medical school and then
took up wildlife photography. Galvin calls him the quintessential
"emergency room guy."
Silver sends fax updates
to a far-flung list while his e-mails flash across the Net at 2:00,
3:00 or 4:00 a.m. That's when Silver gets home from a shift in the
emergency room, still wired from the adrenaline induced by
presiding over broken bones or a gory death.
parallels between his work and environmental activism are
interesting, Galvin says. "Endangered species work is like a MASH
tent, where we're always triaging."
adds, "We're all sort of driving each other, working 16 hours a day
and doing stuff people have never done before - huge lawsuits of
insane proportions. And you're thinking, I can't keep this up.
That's when Silver says, "Come on. There's 4 billion years of
evolution at stake." And you say, "Right. I know my task now."
Three men and a three-part
When the three men first got together
almost a decade ago, they didn't know their tasks. They knew the
big problems - the degradation of the land and the vanishing of
species - but they didn't know how to change the
Their approach evolved step by step, but
it started with the center's first act: the gathering of every
scrap of available information on the most threatened species in
the Southwest not yet on the federal endangered species
Staffers, then based in a tumbledown
building in Luna, N.M., drew up a list of about 400 plants and
animals, mostly by pulling together state and federal lists of
species deemed threatened or "of special concern."
They interviewed about 100 scientists working on
those species, which prompted them to add dozens of additional
species to the government lists. Then they gathered everything they
could find on the status of these species, creating a list of those
most likely to become extinct if action wasn't
That process yielded 50 species for which
the group found solid scientific evidence suggesting they should be
added to the 70 Southwestern species already listed as
"That was our building-block period,
and to this day our success - not just in getting species listed
but in winning timber sale appeals, winning lawsuits - has been
because we're way ahead of the agency in terms of our knowledge of
these species," says Suckling. "Once we started doing litigation,
we were ready to go - we had all the information."
The second part of the center's master plan
focused on using lawsuits to stop activities on the ground,
creating a legal stalemate. Only then, center staffers believed,
would systematic reform of public-lands policy
The center started with logging, filing an
array of lawsuits and appealing hundreds of timber sales. The
barrage of lawsuits ultimately prompted the listing of 25 of the 50
species on the center's original list. It also reduced the timber
harvest by 70 percent from its high water mark in 1989. Center
lawsuits prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate
nearly 5 million acres as critical habitat for the Mexican spotted
"Now you've got a crisis," says Suckling.
"Now you've got the train wreck. The agency is going "Holy
mackerel, if we keep going down this road, we'll never get anything
done. We have to change the way we do business."
"And they did. The Forest Service has now agreed
to legally bind itself to implementing the Mexican Spotted Owl
Recovery Plan, which has never happened before."
A terrible weakness of the Endangered Species
Act, he says, is that the recovery plan is optional. "No one is
obligated to follow it."
Phase three is the most
ambitious goal: fundamental reform of federal land-management
agencies, which Suckling, Galvin and Silver believe have been
corrupted by decades of collusion with ranchers, loggers and
One example of the broader emphasis on
reform is the formation of the Southwest Forest Alliance, a
coalition of 56 environmental groups including the Sierra Club and
the Audubon Society. They helped win a three-year, $700,000 grant
from the Pew Charitable Trusts to underwrite the creation of the
alliance, which has been trying to forge a unified vision of forest
management - a vision that will bring environmental groups to the
bargaining table as a single, unified voice.
alliance has articulated an approach that protects the remaining
big trees and limits logging to forest restoration and thinning of
overstocked, small trees. But it has been buffeted by differences
in strategy and temperament, as the center's confrontational
approach clashes with groups that prefer consensus and negotiation
to a policy of suing.
Galvin served as the paid
staff member for the alliance for a time but soon returned to his
more combative position with the Southwest
Critics of Suckling, Silver and Galvin
say their organization only pretends to be interested in
compromise. "They want (the Southwest) to be pre-European
settlement - period," says Doc Lane of the Arizona Cattle Growers'
Now that the timber industry has
been brought down, Lane says, the state's 1,500 ranchers are the
center's next target.
"Try to sit down with them
and discuss how to come to a mutual agreement, and they will tell
you with no reluctance that they have no intention of talking to
anyone. Their goal is to drive all industry off public lands," Lane
One portent can be discerned along the Gila
River, where a center lawsuit prompted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service to examine BLM grazing allotments along the Gila River. The
Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the impact of grazing on some 63
riparian species, and agreed to allow the Bureau of Land Management
and its lessees to "take" endangered species, providing they
removed or reduced cattle on 15 allotments. The BLM is attempting
to implement the Fish and Wildlife Service's findings, but the
Southwest Center has filed another suit, this one against the
Forest Service, to check cattle grazing on 92 additional grazing
allotments in the Gila River basin.
that related lawsuits have already been filed that could result in
the same legal struggles that paralyzed the timber industry in the
Southwest in recent years. But ranchers are more vulnerable to the
uncertainty and delaying tactics, he says, because family-owned
ventures are struggling to make a living on marginal
Lane dismisses allegations that more
than 90 percent of the state's riparian areas are destroyed or
degraded. He maintains that ranchers do far more good on the land
than harm: They provide water for wildlife, prevent brushfires by
keeping grasses under control and block piecemeal urbanization of
scattered tracts of land.
Prospects for the
ranching industry in the Southwest are bleak, concludes Lane,
because federal agencies are mostly paralyzed by few resources and
widespread demoralization. Meanwhile, the lawsuits promise to bury
anyone seeking solutions that would safeguard both endangered
ranchers and endangered species, he says.
don't kill a fly with a sledge hammer - but that's (the center's)
only solution," Lane says. "There's no way to get ahead of the
juggernaut ... (it's a) litigation maze."
Suckling would be pleased at the bitter
He says cattle have devastated
riparian areas throughout the Southwest, and he dismisses the
alleged benefits of public-lands ranching, noting that ranching
accounts for less than 5 percent of the jobs in rural areas.
Moreover, he says, ranchers are already selling out to ranchettes
whenever they get a reasonable offer. While a reformed timber
industry could restore forests by thinning small trees, he
believes, ranching offers no such scaled-down
"I could take the easy way out and give
you the BS line, which is, ranching is OK where it's "ecologically
sustainable." But what is that? That's just a vague statement
designed to keep everybody happy. Show me a national forest grazing
allotment in Arizona or New Mexico that is not trashed, and I'll
sit down and talk about sustainable grazing. It doesn't exist,"
"Whenever people talk about
grazing areas in the Southwest that aren't trashed, it's not a
national forest allotment. It's someplace like the Malpai Group,
which is mostly private land with low-elevation grassland that
actually has grass and has evolved with heavy grazing."
Suckling believes that to reform ranching, a
train wreck has to happen.
"It's just a question
of how many times you've got to whack them with the two-by-four
before they wake. I guess they're in various degrees of awakeness
now. The timber people are waking up. The grazing managers are
still operating in the 19th century."
the Southwest Center has only begun to fight - for better or
"We have a sense that time is running out
for the things we believe in," says Galvin. "Sometimes people
wonder "Am I doing the right thing?" But if you study history
enough, you know when you're doing the right thing, and how
important it is not to pause - even for a moment."
Peter Aleshire, a former
reporter for the Arizona Republic, lives in
The Southwest Center
for Biological Diversity can be reached at