Calling itself "nature’s legal eagles," the Center for Biological Diversity has earned a national reputation by suing the federal government. Largely through its lawsuits, the center has forced the listing of fully one-quarter of the 1,264 plants and animals now protected under the Endangered Species Act.
So it was no surprise to find the Tucson-based group back
in a courtroom in January, arguing about grazing on public lands.
Only this time the center was the defendant — and on the
losing end of a $600,000 libel case.
In July 2002, the
group unsuccessfully appealed the renewal of a grazing permit
awarded to Arivaca investment banker and fifth-generation rancher
Jim Chilton. It posted a two-page "news advisory" about the appeal
on its Web site, along with 21 photos it cited as proof that
Chilton had allowed overgrazing to damage habitat on his
21,500-acre allotment on Arizona’s Coronado National Forest.
Chilton responded by suing the center. In court, his
attorney, Kraig Marton, showed jurors wide-angle photos —
taken at the same locations as the ones on the Web site —
that revealed oaks and mesquites dotting lush, rolling grasslands.
Barren moonscapes blamed on cows were identified as a campsite for
hunters and a parking lot for an annual festival. Marton told
jurors that four of the photos weren’t even taken on
Chilton’s allotment, though the center says they show a
private inholding and a Forest Service exclosure on the allotment.
"They were out to do harm, out to stop grazing and out to
do whatever they can to prevent the Chiltons and others like them
from letting cows on public land," Marton said.
of Chilton’s family testified that the center’s news
release caused him to become withdrawn and suffer from
sleeplessness and stomach pains. A rancher and real estate broker
who was a paid witness for Chilton said the center’s actions
cut $200,000 from the value of the allotment, purchased for
$797,000 in 1991.
The environmental group countered that
its material was not defamatory because it was honest opinion and
none of the photos were doctored. And because the photos were part
of its appeal of Chilton’s grazing permit, the group argued
that they were public records and therefore shielded from libel
claims. "We must enforce the people’s right to express their
opinion and have public debate over issues," Robert Royal, the
center’s attorney, told jurors.
At the end of
January, after a two-week trial, jurors gave Chilton a resounding
victory, awarding him $100,000 for harm done to his reputation and
cattle company, plus $500,000 in punitive damages, intended to
punish the center and deter others from similar libel. "We really
feel victimized by a wealthy banker who can afford to hire a large
legal team to nit-pick you to death," says policy director
Kierán Suckling. "If there were some mistakes, they were
The jury’s award amounts to
one-quarter of the nonprofit’s net assets at the end of 2003.
But Suckling says the group, which he helped start in 1989, will
not back down on its aggressive litigation. He fears, however, that
the case may have a "chilling effect" on other activists.
The group is likely to appeal, and its insurance should pay for at
least some of the damages, if they’re upheld.