The Rancher's Revenge

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

Some of the shots were less obvious, but made sense once Chilton explained the history.

For while most of the acreage today is wild, its history is much more complicated. There was once an active mine on the land and four small communities. At one time, the biggest town, Ruby, had a population of 300. As a journey through the allotment makes clear, traces of human activity are still there today. There's the footprint of a house and old roads only beginning to regrow vegetation.

Plus, because the government owns the land, Chilton is legally required to keep it open to hunters and hikers. The fences on the border to Mexico are frequently cut. Campers stop in for the day or the week.

Jim Chilton at home on the range.
New Times
Jim Chilton at home on the range.
Photo #18, seemingly a harsh indictment of Chilton's 
A.J. Schneller, courtesy of Kraig Marton
Photo #18, seemingly a harsh indictment of Chilton's ranching.

And so while Forest Service staffers were pleased with the condition of the allotment, not every inch is pristine wilderness -- something reflected in the Center's photographs.

One, captioned to point out that the land has "no grass," is a spot favored by deer hunters, Marton says. Another -- supposedly depicting a "compacted, crusty and dry" slope -- shows an old mining road, Chilton says.

But the biggest revelation proved to be Photo #18. It once seemed so damning, that pair of mournful cows alone on a big flat of mud. With just a little investigation, the powerful image fell apart.

First: The photograph was actually taken on land owned by Chilton's neighbor.

Second: By the time Chilton took Marton to see the spot in question, the area that had been so muddy was no longer muddy at all. It was a lake, a lake that dried up during the spring of 2002 because of severe drought conditions. The picture actually depicted the lake's bottom.

Third: Just days before the Center's cameraman snapped the photo, the dry lake bed had hosted several hundred campers, who were throwing a May Day celebration.

Marton obtained photos from that event. Those photos show trucks, campers, tents, and a virtual platoon of hippies.

"People did this," Marton says. "People. Not cows."

But it wasn't until the Center's photographer, a college student named A.J. Schneller, testified in his deposition that Marton realized just how reckless the Center had been to include Photo #18 in its appeal and press release.

As Schneller conceded, when he took the photograph for the Center, he knew all about the May Day party that had happened on the same spot just days before.

How did he know about it?

Because he'd been there, Schneller admitted. Partying.

Along with Schneller, another Center member visited the Montana and took photographs that proved controversial. This one, Martin Taylor, was no college kid.

An Australian native and a Ph.D. in biology, Taylor also wrote the 20-page appeal criticizing the Forest Service's plan to reauthorize grazing on the Chiltons' allotment.

The appeal is dense and full of acronyms. It argues that continued grazing on the site could kill the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog and, of course, the Sonora chub.

It also criticizes current conditions in harsh terms. "Recent site visits" by Center staffers, Taylor writes, found "extreme levels of land abuse, with bare soil the norm and deer grass severely cropped in places resulting in plant death."

You'd assume Taylor had been studying the acreage for years.

But once Marton got Taylor under oath, the scientist explained.

He'd been to the allotment just once before writing the appeal. He'd driven in, taken some photos, camped overnight, left.

He didn't take any notes.

"They took no notes," Chilton crows. "They took no notes!"

Taylor testified in the trial, and the jury found his lack of scientific rigor particularly damning to the Center's case, says Robert Fleckenstein, the jury foreman.

"They were responsible for his actions," Fleckenstein says.

The trial started in January and lasted two weeks. Chilton's lawyers called 20 witnesses. The Center's lawyers called just one -- Howard Frederick, the man who actually owned the land where the May Day celebration took place. (Frederick testified that even he wasn't sure exactly where Chilton's property ended and his began.)

The jury deliberated less than three hours before announcing its verdict: It was 9-1 in favor of Chilton.

And then the jury announced the kicker: They'd voted to award Chilton $600,000. Of that sum, $500,000 was in punitive damages, which are only called for when a jury believes that the conduct involved has been so "willful, malicious, or fraudulent" that it goes beyond negligence.

The idea: to punish wrongdoers and deter others from following in their footsteps.

To the Center, it was a shocking decision, says founder Kieran Suckling. "We looked over all the photos and the entire press release, and we double-checked everything," Suckling says. "We made sure we were on solid ground."

Suckling, a dark-haired, charismatic man in his early 40s, is used to being around courtrooms. It's clear that he didn't find his opponents' case all that impressive.

Marton spent a lot of time asking prospective jurors if they were vegetarian, Suckling says. And quoting the Bible. And talking about a Michael Crichton novel that suggested global warming was a conspiracy on the part of environmentalists.

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