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Members of Chilton’s family testified that the center’s news release caused him to become withdrawn and suffer from sleeplessness and stomach pains.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