Extreme Green

  • Ted Williams


It has taken me decades to be recognized as an environmental extremist. My "attack" on Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, a National Rifle Association board member, in Sierra magazine fomented a mass exodus from the Outdoor Writers Association of America, including 79 members and 22 supporting organizations. I serve on two foundations that award major grants to groups defending wild land from developers, and I write a muckraking column for Audubon called "Incite."

Actually, I'm an extremist only as defined by people who perceive fish and wildlife as basically in the way.  For those folks, all environmentalists are extremists. But radical green groups do exist, and they're engaged in an industry whose waste products are fish and wildlife.

You and I are a major source of revenue for that industry. The Interior Department must respond within 90 days to petitions to list species under the Endangered Species Act. Otherwise, petitioners like the Center for Biological Diversity get to sue and collect attorney fees from the Justice Department.

The Center also shakes down taxpayers directly from Interior Department funds under the Equal Access  to Justice Act, and for missed deadlines when the agency can't keep up with  the broadside of Freedom-of-Information-Act requests. The Center for Biological Diversity has two imitators -- WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project.

Kierán Suckling, who directs and helped found the Tucson, Ariz.-based Center, boasts that he engages in psychological warfare by causing stress to already stressed public servants. "They feel like their careers are  being mocked and destroyed -- and they are," he told High Country News.  "So they become much more willing to play by our rules."

Those rules include bending the truth like pretzel dough. For example, after the  Center posted photos on its website depicting what it claimed was Arizona rancher Jim Chilton's cow-denuded grazing allotment, Chilton sued. When Chilton produced evidence that the photos showed a campsite and a parking lot, the court awarded him $600,000 in damages. Apparently this was the first successful libel suit against an environmental group, yet the case was virtually ignored by the media.

"Ranching should end," proclaims Suckling. "Good riddance." But the only problem with ranching is that it's not always done right. And even when it's done wrong, it saves land from development.

Amos Eno runs the hugely successful Yarmouth, Maine-based Resources First Foundation, an outfit that, among other things, assists ranchers who want to restore native ecosystems. Earlier, he worked at Interior's Endangered Species Office, crafting amendments to strengthen the  law, then went on to direct the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Eno figures the feds could "recover and delist three dozen species" with the resources they spend responding to the Center for Biological Diversity's litigation.

"The amount of money CBD makes suing is just obscene," he told me. "They're one of the reasons the Endangered Species Act has become so dysfunctional. They deserve the designation of eco-criminals."

A senior Obama official had this to say: "CBD has probably sued Interior more than all other groups combined. They've divested  that agency of any control over Endangered Species Act priorities and caused a huge drain on resources. In April, for instance, CBD petitioned to list 404 species, knowing full well that biologists can't make the required findings in  90 days."

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his Fish and Wildlife Service director, Jamie Clark, together saved the Endangered Species Act from a hostile Congress. One way they did this was with brilliant habitat conservation plans that rewarded landowners for harboring endangered species instead of punishing them -- as the law had previously done.

A few plans were flawed, but the Center scarcely saw one that it didn't hate. "My frustration was not so much with lawsuits about listings, which fell like snowflakes," declared Babbitt, "but with litigation boiling up  around the plans."

Clark offered this: "Back then, the suits came mostly from CBD. Now I think CBD and WildEarth Guardians are trying to see who can sue most. Bruce (Babbitt), who was committed to saving endangered species, gave me the air cover I needed. I have yet to see that kind of commitment in this administration. The Service isn't making progress. Citizens need to be able to petition for species in trouble, but this has become an industry."

Acquiring the public's attention seems to motivate real environmental extremists almost as much as acquiring the public's money. Recently, the Center petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the manufacture and sale of lead ammunition and fishing weights. There are lots of inexpensive, non-toxic alternatives. And lead projectiles for hunting and lead sinkers small enough to be ingested by birds do need to be banned.  But the Center for Biological Diversity sought a ban on everything -- no exception for the military, outdoor or indoor target shooting, or deep-sea sinkers that ostriches couldn't swallow. It seems inconceivable that the Center didn't know its petition was going nowhere. But for a year its name has been all over the news, and now, predictably, the Center is suing EPA. The Center for Biological Diversity gives every environmentalist a bad name.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on  the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Massachusetts.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
May 31, 2011 03:16 PM
Ted, thanks for this story. While I'm not a total fan of "Gang Green" environmentalists, this is food for thought. I will think twice before clicking on CBD email action alerts.
Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
May 31, 2011 06:01 PM
Ted- I am a CBD member and a former Endangered Species Coalition organizer and I can say uniquivocably that the CBD makes the Interior Department do their job. There are dozens if not hundreds of plant and animal species that have languished on the candidate list for anywhere from 10 to 25 years! There is no excuse for this! As for collecting fees connected to the Equal Access to Justice Act, if the Interior Department would get off of their duffs and work to list species in a timely fashion, there would be no need for litigation. The lawyers from CBD are doing what any other lawyer would do to collect fees for services. I really do not think you have a clue what's involved with listing species or what grassroots activists are up against getting species or habitat protected. Big Green groups really do not do much toward that end. Thank goodness for Kieran Suckling and his CBD crew for the great work they do!
Stephanie Paige Ogburn
Stephanie Paige Ogburn Subscriber
Jun 01, 2011 03:48 PM
A comment on this story has been deleted because it violated our comment policy. Comments must include the author's first and last name. Please see https://www.hcn.org/policies/comments-policy for more information. --Stephanie Paige Ogburn, online editor.
Felice Pace
Felice Pace Subscriber
Jun 12, 2011 05:22 PM
The Environmental Establishment hates CBD and the other environmental upstarts because these groups have garnered the kind of support and budgets the Establishment has worked for decades to keep for themselves. Ted Williams is part of that Establishment.

Williams fails to mention that both NRDC and Earthjustice also receive big bucks in exactly the same ways as the Center for Biological Diversity. Or that anti-environmental litigation factories like the Pacific Legal Foundation as well as lawyers who defend immigrants and the oppressed rely on the same funding system. So why Ted is it OK for NRDC and EJ to live this way but not CBD?

I'm with the person who commented that if the agencies would just do their jobs competently there would be nothing to sue about.

Recently CBD and a Local group - EPIC - sued to list Upper Klamath-Trinity Chinook Salmon. This action was taken only after NOAA-NMFS refused for years to develop a management plan for Klamath-Trinity Spring Chinook and the State of California refused several attempts to limit sport take of the Spring Chinook run - the most endangered run in the Klamath River Basin.

And as for Mr. Babbitt's HCP's, most of them were sweetheart deals for big timber and other corporate interests. Some are OK but most are what emerges from the rear end of a bull. For example the Simpson Timber Company (now Green Diamond Resources) Northern Spotted Owl HCP allowed the company to "take" 30 pairs of owls. When they had accomplished that the company went back to the feds with a proposal to take 8 more pairs - the balance of the species still living on land the corporation controls. FWS granted the request.

Out here in the West we environmental activists take pride in being extreme when that is what is necessary. Extremism is necessary when those responsible for enforcing the laws designed to defend the earth refuse to do so. Ted apparently thinks we should restrain ourselves and leave the job to the polite professionals who run the Environmental Establishment.
Ted Williams obviously does not deserve the title "environmental extremist".
Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
Jun 12, 2011 06:47 PM
I wear my label "environmental extremist" like a badge of honor! Thanks Felice for putting Ted Williams in his place (which isn't saving species!).
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder Subscriber
Jun 12, 2011 06:53 PM
As usual, I think there's probably a middle ground somewhere. I'm not defending neolib Democratic administrations any more than GOP ones. But, groups like CBD could also suggest ways for USFWS, etc. to meet deadlines better.
Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
Jun 12, 2011 07:14 PM
Steve, CBD talks to USF&WS all of the time! USF&S (as well as other agencies) tend to ignore environmentalists until they're being sued. I know this from my own personal experience.
Jesse Tigner
Jesse Tigner
Jun 14, 2011 11:17 AM
An interesting enough article. Not particularly new ideas, but it, along with some of the comments, got me to thinking.

I used to be more of an environmental extremist in my views -- things were much more black and white, and painted in right and wrong terms. Building on the Simpson example above, it was wrong for Simpson to be killing any owls. Period. It was right for the government, or various groups to shut down logging. Period. Then, on my first job out of University in 2001 where I worked on the long-running carnivore monitoring project in the Sierra Nevada I saw that *gasp* some of the wood boxes we used to tote our species detection devices around in where made from Simpson cut and Simpson milled plywood. How could this have happened? I thought the people on my field crew and the scientists running the project shared by beliefs? How could we be using wood from these heartless savages hell-bent destroying the forests for a profit?? I was heart sick.

Now, 10 years later I live in Alberta where I’m finishing my MSc degree aimed at understanding changes in habitat use and occupancy of marten triggered by energy development. And I work *double gasp* in the energy industry! I don’t think of myself as part of the environmental establishment, nor do I think of myself as a sell-out. Though I’m sure others do. Instead, I think of myself as a scientist interested in better understanding how ecosystems respond to human land use, and how to develop multi-stakeholder management plans that minimize those impacts. And right now I feel I can make the biggest difference on the industry side of the fence. Regardless, over my years of observation I have clearly seen that an un-compromising stance and laying blame at others does little to fix problems or help conservation issues.

It seems to me there’s a lot of pushing on the part of the “extremist” set to get the “establishment” to do their jobs or to get various companies to fall in line with some particular view. So I guess I’ll push back a little with this question:

What’s wrong with compromising?

Why, when the approach has so clearly not worked, are certain groups still so gun-hoe on making everyone else toe their line through lawsuits, publicity stunts, and other unilateral tactics? Take a step back and look around. All the issues driving species endangerment are on-going largely unaffected by these actions. Does industry drag its feet much of the time? Yup. Does government accomplish tasks in a timely fashion? Nope, not usually. But…have the purists proud to wear their extremist badges made a positive and effective change? I’m not so sure.

And I’ll push a little harder with this question: if everything is so buggered up and wrong, what does right look like? What would it take for the extremist set to actually be happy about things? And what’s the game plan to get there?
Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
Jun 14, 2011 02:39 PM
Jesse- Legendary environmentalist, David Brower once said, "everytime I compromise wild places and wild creatures, I lose". He was right! Industry does not compromise and in fact they will use every tool at their disposal to stop species listings or wilderness designations, etc. I think that your working for the energy industry has made you soft on protecting species. I'm sure if your research found that energy development in Alberta was destroying species (let's take a hard look at the tar sands project!!), the industry would quash your findings. In my original post I stated that some species have languished on the candidates list for 10-25 years and that USF&WS have not been doing their jobs in a timely fashion. That's why groups like CBD and grassroots activists are critical to keep their "feet to the fire". Compromise is not a part of my strategy to save species. Call me a purist or extremist, I really do not care. What's happening to the planet's species and ecosystems is what is really extreme! And so I'm taking up the uncompromising cause.
Carol Carson
Carol Carson Subscriber
Aug 02, 2011 04:56 PM
Ted, your comment "One way they did this was with brilliant habitat conservation plans that rewarded landowners for harboring endangered species instead of punishing them -- as the law had previously done" proves how ranchers are constantly subsidized by our government for things they should be doing anyway, like not killing wolves. You guys must make a lot of money this way and also using our public lands as your personal money making machines with your cattle! BTW, why don't you send me some of that money, Ted? I'm not getting any subsidies for doing the right thing everyday to save natural treasures.
Kieran Suckling
Kieran Suckling Subscriber
Sep 26, 2011 03:12 PM
Good news for endangered species and citizen action: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just ruled on the Endangered Species Act listing petition that Williams complained so much about. All 374 of the aquatic Southeast species in the Center's year-long, 1,400 page petition were given a positive protection ruling. The rest of the 404 will be ruled on later this year.

Here's the press release:

374 Southeast Species Move Toward Endangered Species Act Protection

Florida Sandhill Crane, Alabama Map Turtle, Streamside Salamander Among Hundreds of
Freshwater Species in 12 States That May Get New Protection

WASHINGTON— In response to a 2010 scientific petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today found that protection of 374 freshwater species in 12 southeastern states may be warranted under the Endangered Species Act. The decision was made in accordance with a historic settlement agreement reached this summer between the Center and the government to push 757 of the country’s least protected, but most imperiled, species toward Endangered Species Act protection.

“With today’s finding that 374 southeastern freshwater species will be considered for Endangered Species Act protection, it’s clear the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally taking action to help hundreds of American species that desperately need a lifeline,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the Center. “Like so many species in our ever-more crowded world, these 374 species face a multitude of threats to their survival — habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and pressure from invasive species.”

The 374 include 89 species of crayfish and other crustaceans; 81 plants; 78 mollusks; 51 butterflies, moths, caddisflies and other insects; 43 fish; 13 amphibians; 12 reptiles, four mammals and three birds. They are found in 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Included among the 374 species are the Florida sandhill crane, streamside salamander, Alabama map turtle, beautiful crayfish, clam-shell orchid, cobblestone tiger beetle, frecklebelly madtom and the Canoe Creek pigtoe.

“The Southeast is home to more freshwater species than anywhere else in the world. Tragically, the region has already lost many of them to extinction,” Greenwald said. “Endangered Species Act protection for these remaining species will help stem the tide of extinction and herald the beginning of a new era of species protection in the Southeast.”

As documented in the petition, southeastern freshwater species are threatened by many forces that have altered, and continue to alter, the region’s waterways, such as dams, pollution, sprawl, poor agricultural practices, invasive species and a warming climate.

“Protecting these species will also protect rivers and streams that are a source of drinking water and recreation for Southeast communities,” said Greenwald. “Endangered Species Act protection will not just save these species from extinction but benefit millions of people.”

Groups that joined the Center on the petition included Alabama Rivers Alliance, Clinch Coalition, Dogwood Alliance, Gulf Restoration Network, Tennessee Forests Council and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

Additional Information
For a copy of today’s finding, more information on our campaign to address the Southeast freshwater extinction crisis, a copy of the petition, a list of species by state and a slideshow of a sample of the species, please visit:

For more information on our landmark settlement agreement, please visit:
Norm Hooben
Norm Hooben
Dec 27, 2012 09:36 AM
Thinking out loud...
For those that believe in total equality...
If you have an Endangered Species Act shouldn't you have an Excessive Species Act? There's probably plenty of candidates eligible for such a listing but you would be safe if you added Kierán Suckling.
Charles Phillips
Charles Phillips
Dec 27, 2012 11:50 PM
Norm- You sound like another jerk that thinks that we aren't losing species, global climate change doesn't exist, etc. Mr. Suckling is a passionate advocate for species and the environment. You obviously do not know the man!