Longform

Owl See You in Court

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The city is embarking on a project to pump treated waste water into the ground to recharge the aquifer.

"We're trying to offer solutions to the San Pedro River and the water issues in the area," says Sierra Vista city manager Chuck Potucek. "The only solutions that the Southwest Center brings to the table are the pain and public costs of litigation."

"There's not a problem with doing water recharge," Kieran counters. "It's a good thing. The problem is that they're selling this in Sierra Vista as a solution to all problems, and now development can march forward."

As a preemptive strike against development, the center and its biologists filed petitions to list the riverside's flora and fauna under the Endangered Species Act: the spikedace, a fish in its water; the Sonoran tiger salamander; the Chiricahua dock, a plant on its banks; the Southwestern willow flycatcher, a bird, in the low tree limbs; the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl in the taller trees.

"With the combination of all those species together in the area, it has to be protected," Kieran says. "It boxes them in so that they finally have to say, 'All right, we give up. We're going to come up with a complete plan.'"

I met Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin four years ago when they were contract owl surveyors--or "hooters"--for the U.S. Forest Service on the Apache-Sitgreaves and Gila national forests.

They were wild as woodchucks, with bushy beards and excited eyes. Their eyebrows threatened to jump full off their faces as they whispered about midnights lost in the woods, stumbling up and down forest drainages. The spotted owl call is an aching melancholy sound: three barking quarter notes in a minor key and a long half note that trails off in the darkness. Kieran and Peter would hoot their best impersonations and then wait for an answer.

Spotted owls are candid and curious birds. They will fly down to visit with their hooters and perch on a low branch nearby as if to ask "Why'd you call?" Unlike most owls, which have yellow eyes, spotted owls have deep brown eyes which they fix attentively on their visitors. That personality seems to bring an unexplainable mysticism out of the people sent to find them.

And an equally unexplainable hostility out of the loggers who look to them as a symbol of the death of their industry.

At the time, Peter and Kieran lived in Luna, New Mexico. I had suggested that we meet at a bar in Alpine, a tiny hamlet just over the border on the Arizona side, and they laughed nervously at the suggestion. Because of their fledgling activism on behalf of owls, they'd had people defecate on their cars, had windows broken and tires slashed. One of their friends had been beaten up in a bar, and they figured the same would happen to them.

The locals didn't feel that a pair of East Coast longhair punks had any business telling them how to do their jobs, and Peter and Kieran, being hopeless smart alecks, had not helped their cause by printing up stationery with a letterhead that read "Two Guys From Massachusetts."

The restaurant across the street from the bar was frequented more by families and tourists than by loggers, and since there was no alcohol served there, they thought it might be a safer meeting place. It was well after dark when we finished eating and talking, and their enthusiasm was just gushing out of them. They suggested that right then we should jump in their broken-down Subaru station wagon and drive several hours over rutted and muddy Forest roads through a pounding monsoon rain to look for owls.

They seemed insane.
Now they consult with U.S. senators and Washington bureaucrats and give pithy quotes to the New York Times.

The Southwest Center for Biological Diversity operates out of a big Santa Fe-style house in the desert in East Tucson, just a ground squirrel's jump away from Saguaro National Monument. For want of a better word, it's a commune, with nine biologists--seven men and two women--living among the computers and copiers and fax machines. They move silently through the compound, clearly deferring to Kieran.

A woman shuffles through the kitchen with a towel wrapped around her on the way to the shower; a man stands at the stove, stirring together rice and beans and vegetables which he then spoons into his mouth, guy-style, over the sink while he looks out the window.

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Michael Kiefer