Rancher wins big in libel suit against enviros

  • Jim and Sue Chilton on their property near Arivaca, Arizona

    BENJIE SANDERS, THE ARIZONA DAILY STAR
 

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.

Members of Chilton’s family testified that the center’s news release caused him to become withdrawn and suffer from sleeplessness and stomach pains.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 honest mistakes."

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.

The author covers environmental issues for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -