Owl See You in Court

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On the kitchen wall is an improvised poster showing the comic-strip character Calvin, grimacing and brandishing two clenched fists. The poster's headline says, "Testosterone-deprived Skinny White Boys Eco-Defense Project," and the type beneath the headline reads, "Fight for the protection of habitat. We have obtained critical habitat designation for the following species: men, flies, rats, worms, Bermuda grass, snails. Join us in the fight to protect the species that are currently taking over our planet."

Because the staffers make as little as $400 a month--Kieran, as director, makes just $1,000 a month--the center provides them with room and board.

One lives in a converted school bus out front, another lives in a tepee out back by the vegetable garden.

"It's a middle-class tepee," Kieran says, because it has a cot and a stereo in it. But given the gaps between the dirt floor and the tepee walls, one supposes that at night it becomes a southwest center for scorpion study.

Many of the staff biologists are recent graduate students, and indeed the center's positions are more like a Peace Corps stint than a job, or a postgraduate internship, a way to live a graduate student's dream life, drinking coffee and reading and working through the night.

And if the blurring of living and working expenses is an accountant's worst nightmare, Kieran wants it that way. He wants to have people available to answer the phone 24 hours a day. One year Kieran and Peter worked through Thanksgiving faxing letters to the Forest Service, just so service officials would come in the day after, have a stack of documents waiting for them and realize that their environmental opposition didn't take days off.

"One of the reasons they get things done is the old American way of doing things," says Mark Hughes, an attorney with the Denver firm Earthlaw, which does legal work in the public interest. "They've used limited resources, but they've worked hard, and they've told the truth."

Although Kieran's and Peter's personal views on the environment may tend toward the radical extreme, their methods do not.

Congress has written plenty of laws to protect the environment--The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, The Endangered Species Act--but it has not done a good job of seeing that those laws are enforced. In fact, they are under attack by a new generation of politicians looking to deregulate the world to make it more lucrative for private industry. And despite their evil reputations as jackbooted overregulating thugs, the agencies charged with protecting the environment--the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency--are overworked and underfunded, or, sometimes, just willing to look the other way. The Forest Service in particular has gone out of its way to keep the timber industry operating. And so the work of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity consists mostly of making the U.S. government enforce its own laws, a decidedly nonradical undertaking.

Since 1991, the center has successfully filed petitions to list 24 species of plants and animals as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Among the species the center has listed are the Mexican spotted owl, the Northern goshawk, the southwest willow flycatcher, the cactus wren, the California gnat catcher, the spikedace (a fish), and a number of butterflies. Each of those listing petitions entails an exhaustively researched scientific description of the plant or animal and its habitat and why it is threatened.

The center's garage has been converted into a library that contains shelves and shelves of forest maps, tall rows of file cabinets filled with legislation and legal documents, scientific papers arranged by species, historical records and correspondence gleaned through extensive Freedom of Information requests. Even five years ago, environmentalist campaigns were based more on emotion than hard science and law. The center's library, however, is a repository of meticulous research and an indicator of why the center has been so effective.

Kieran and the staff biologists spend much of their time writing "white papers" commissioned by other environmental groups, treatises on fire and forest health, on grazing and on dwarf mistletoe, a parasite plant that preys on ponderosa pine and is often used as an excuse to cut old-growth trees.

Since 1991, Kieran and Peter and Robin Silver have filed nearly 50 lawsuits, including litigation to stop the channeling of the Gila River, which would prevent flooding and consequently change the ecosystem of the river. They sued to stop the raising of water levels in Roosevelt Lake, which would imperil the Southwest willow flycatchers living near the water line. (Flycatchers are site specific, meaning that when their nests go underwater, they won't build new ones elsewhere.) Both of those lawsuits are ongoing.

When the Fish and Wildlife Service refused to recognize the Northern goshawk as threatened in the West, the center successfully sued to make the agency reconsider. The federal judge in that case lectured the service on the whimsical inconsistencies in how it assesses its listing criteria. The inconsistencies, of course, had been discovered and assembled by the center's staff researchers.

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Michael Kiefer