The Rancher's Revenge

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

"We thought, 'He's presented no evidence,'" Suckling says. "We thought, 'Sure, we're going to win this. The jury will see through this.' We were very confident."

Robert Royal, the Tiffany & Boscoe lawyer who represented the Center on the case, is less dismissive, although he agrees that he was shocked by the punitive damages. He acknowledges that the Center's case had some weaknesses, including, particularly, Schneller's testimony.

But, he stresses, the photographs in question hadn't been doctored. And sure, they showed the very worst spots of the allotment, but that's what they were supposed to do. As the Forest Service allows in its evaluation process, the Center had merely been trying to document problem areas. There was no way it had a responsibility to somehow show all 21,500 acres.

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.

Royal also notes that Marton took his photographs more than a year after Center staffers. "The rains had come in," he explains.

Royal acknowledges that Marton did a good job. It certainly helped, though, that Chilton had the money to go all out, he says. "Marton acknowledged to us that his client told him to spend whatever it took," he says, sighing.

Indeed, to the Center, the verdict says more about Chilton's deep pockets than any mistakes on its part.

In a hearing last week, it asked the judge to throw out the verdict -- or, at minimum, to reduce the punitive damages. Judge Fields is expected to rule on that motion in the next month.

At the hearing, the Center's lawyers talked about the First Amendment. They talked about the precedent: What does it mean if activists can get sued for information from a government appeal? Won't that have a "chilling effect" on people participating in the democratic process? They continue to insist the photos are "substantially true," even if a few details were off.

Maybe, Suckling says later, they should have been more careful with the photo captions. But that's not libel. It's certainly not a mistake worth $600,000.

As far as miscarriages of justice go, Suckling puts it right up there with O.J. Simpson.

"This was a very expensive, O.J.-like campaign against us," he says. "And the bottom line is, O.J.'s free to play golf today, and Jim Chilton's won his lawsuit."

It makes for a good story, but it's not the way the jury saw it. Fleckenstein, the jury foreman, says it was the pictures that they found truly persuasive.

"I respect them for what they do," he says of the Center. "But they publish thousands of news advisories. They're in the business of bringing suits against the government. It's not like they're innocent schoolboys playing in the big boy's game."

He says the fat damages were, partly, a way of scolding the environmentalists for letting the matter even go to trial.

"They acted irresponsibly, and they should have tried to work it out instead of wasting everybody's time. That's what jurors kept asking: 'Why couldn't they just settle this over a cup of coffee?'"

Jim Chilton celebrated the verdict by putting on his cowboy hat and walking outside the courthouse to talk to the TV cameras. Naturally, the hat was white: Cowboys are the good guys.

He wears that same hat as he shows off his allotment a few months later, a copy of the Center's press release in hand. There's where they took this photograph, he explains. There's that one.

He's confident that the condition of the allotment is the best argument he can make. There are barrel cactus and ocotillo and flowers the color of saffron. Grass grows everywhere, yellow and green and every shade in between.

It looks nothing like the harsh orange dirt depicted in the press release.

"Suckling was quoted saying this will have a chilling effect on the environmental activist movement, and I hope it does," he says. "That was the purpose."

He climbs into his pickup truck, a turquoise-and-white Ford F250, complete with a pro-Bush bumper sticker.

"They can say I have deep pockets, but I just elected to use my retirement money to do what I thought was right," he says. He pauses, as if trying to decide whether to keep talking.

He can't help himself. He adds the kicker. "Cowboys are like that," he says.

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