The Rancher's Revenge

When environmentalists attacked, rancher Jim Chilton used the best ammunition he could find -- and it came from his enemy

The monthly newspaper in the nearest town to the Chiltons' ranch, The Connection, picked up the press release, running a story that included the Web site address for anyone who wanted to check out the pictures. And that's when Jim Chilton saw them for the first time.

To a guy who boasts about how cowboys are "brave, loyal and true" -- and yes, that's an actual quote -- it was too much. He was convinced he'd been a good rancher. The photos didn't show the acreage he knew.

"It hit me like a kick after I looked at the pictures on their Web site," Chilton says. "I was just angry."

Jim Chilton, standing in front of the same area as 
depicted in Photo #18 -- a marked difference.
New Times
Jim Chilton, standing in front of the same area as depicted in Photo #18 -- a marked difference.
Chilton's lawyer, Kraig Marton
Peter Scanlon
Chilton's lawyer, Kraig Marton

A slender man, with neatly trimmed white hair and gold wire-rimmed glasses, it's much easier to picture him running the Chilton Ranch than running an investment firm in Los Angeles, which is how he made his money and what he still does, weekdays.

Jim Chilton speaks deliberately. But a current of anger runs just below the surface any time he talks about the Center for Biological Diversity and what he terms "their anti-grazing agenda."

He'd loathed the Center for years. This press release, these awful photos, came after four years of the Center's attempts to wipe out his ranch, he says. Chilton had fought back, and fought back hard, every chance he got.

But he'd always been reacting. He was tired of reacting.

A lawyer he knew in Patagonia, Dennis Parker, took a long look at the photos. "Jim," he said, "this is slanderous. You could sue on this."

By his own accounting, Chilton didn't think about it for very long. "Let's do it," he said.

Jim Chilton's lawsuit made hardly a ripple when it was filed, probably because no one gave it a chance in hell. The Center for Biological Diversity is no ragtag band of environmental do-gooders. The government has been forced to bend to its will -- frequently. So, even, has Steven Spielberg. What's one angry rancher going to do in the face of that?

Founded in New Mexico in 1989 by a trio of environmentalists with ties to the radical Earth First! movement, the Center, now based in Tucson, started small and quickly grew into a powerhouse. Its annual revenues now average more than $1 million, according to its tax returns.

The Center has found its power in the law. While other environmental groups were still stuck on symbolic protests, the Center harnessed the power of the legal roadblock, halting development and curtailing business interests by filing suit after suit.

The Center's members truly believe in their mission. (Even Chilton admits this.) None of them is getting rich; not even close. They're fighting to protect endangered species and preserve wild places, and on the latter front, at least, they've been wildly successful.

The Center's weapon has been the Endangered Species Act, the 1973 law designed to protect vanishing species and their habitat. Under the act, an interested party like the Center can sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forcing it to list various animals as endangered. Once the animals are listed, the Center can sue the agency for not sufficiently protecting them. Or to force Fish and Wildlife to designate "critical habitat" -- land that must then be protected for a species' survival.

And that gives the Center tremendous power: the power to stop timber companies. Or housing developers.

The Center has filed lawsuits to stop logging, including one in the 1990s that virtually destroyed the timber industry in Arizona and New Mexico. (That suit was to save an owl.) It's also sued to halt the construction of schools (same owl), golf courses (various lizards and squirrels) and even a DreamWorks complex (a bird called the flycatcher).

The Center doesn't always get what it wants, but by its estimate, the group has won more than 90 percent of its legal actions -- and it puts the number of such actions at more than 300.

"They play a critical role in pushing for protection of endangered species," says Sandy Bahr, who's worked with the group's staffers as conservation outreach director for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, based in Phoenix. "They're out there gathering good data and trying to get these agencies to take action on something they definitely don't want to take action on.

"Everyone talks about compromise, and that's great . . . but when something is on the precipice of disappearing, or a species so threatened we might not have it anymore, there needs to be people who will stand up. And the Center does that."

The Center for Biological Diversity is not a foe to take on lightly. Even when Jim Chilton found an attorney who specializes in libel cases to handle the lawsuit, the attorney didn't seem too impressed with Chilton's potential for success. Kraig Marton, who practices at the tony Phoenix firm of Jaburg & Wilk, told Chilton he'd take the case, but he didn't offer any false hope.

"He told me I could never get my attorneys' fees back," Chilton recalls.

For all his folksy patter, Jim Chilton came to ranching late. It was while serving on Arizona State University's student government that he met his wife Sue, who was studying Spanish. As the only woman he assigned to his committee, he thought she might want to take notes for the group. Already feisty, she thought differently and made that clear. He was smitten.

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