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Know the West

An unabashed moralist bows out


CARSON NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. - Sam Hitt wraps his arms around a towering yellow pine. He sniffs the bark and invites me to take a turn. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice assail my sinuses.

"People tease me about being a tree hugger. I never hugged a tree, so I thought I'd get into it," says the founder of one of the Southwest's most unyielding and litigious environmental groups. On April 1, this soft-spoken, 52-year-old son of a forester relinquished his leadership of Forest Guardians to write a book.

He leaves behind a tumultuous history, which includes finding a bomb in Forest Guardians' mailbox (the FBI never found the culprit), two hangings of Hitt in effigy (after a Forest Guardians lawsuit closed the Carson to loggers and Hispanic firewood collectors), and opponents who accuse Hitt of some downright nasty things (HCN, 12/25/95: Environmentalists say agency uses them as scapegoats).

"Cultural genocide against the Western family" is what Caren Cowan calls Hitt's work, her teeth sounding clenched, even over the telephone. Cowan, the executive director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, says Forest Guardians' lawsuits aimed at stopping logging and grazing on public lands have forced rural families from the land.

With less vitriol, fellow environmentalists have also locked horns with Hitt. Forest Guardians is a "hard-line organization" that isolates environmental values from cultural and historical values, says Brian Shields, executive director of Taos-based Amigos Bravos. Shields says Hitt's brash language and no-compromise legal strategy have led to "polarizing the environmental movement in conflict with land-based communities."

To other enviros, Hitt's litigiousness is neither extreme nor uncommon. "Is bringing lawsuits radical? If we were enforcing DWI (driving while intoxicated) laws, we'd be heroes," says Scott Hoffman Black, the executive director of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

Since the mid-1980s, Forest Guardians has filed about 100 lawsuits over violations of the Clean Water, Endangered Species and National Forest Management acts, winning 80 percent of them. Currently, 25 lawsuits, or threats of suits, are in play. Hitt's rationale is simple: "If a law is good enough to pass through our legislative process, it's good enough to be enforced."

Hitt equates environmental destruction with this country's worst social ills - slavery, child labor, denying women the right to vote. He says he wants to be remembered "as a person who took a moral stance on the environment. So many of my colleagues are loath to look at issues through a moral lens."

Susan Tixier, the founder of Great Old Broads for Wilderness and past executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, takes Hitt's place at the helm.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Cathy Robbins