Longform

Owl See You in Court

Page 4 of 9

They've appealed dozens of timber sales and grazing allotments; recently they appealed a grazing permit in pastures on the banks of the lake that provides drinking water to the city of Flagstaff, because cattle feces carries the deadly cryptosporidium parasite, which is so tiny it cannot be filtered out by conventional water treatment and so resilient that it cannot be killed by safe levels of chlorine.

And because of their work, they've received grants from the Turner and Harder and Levinson Foundations, the Center for Deep Ecology and Patagonia. Four years ago, they were a handful of hippies operating off of unemployment checks; now they claim a membership of 3,000 and a budget that has grown to $231,000.

Last October, Peter took a leave of absence from the center and moved to Flagstaff to be campaign director for the Southwest Forest Alliance, which is an umbrella for 50 separate environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.

"He works about 80 hours a week for us and then works on projects for the Southwest Center in his spare time," says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club, who sits on the board of the Forest Alliance.

Kieran meanwhile, hobnobs with Washington bureaucrats and speaks before U.S. Senate committees. The New York Times calls him for quotes on wildland fires and other forest issues.

All of which is heady stuff. Behind his back, leaders of less-visible environmental groups worry that Kieran's ego may be growing in proportion to the amount of grant money he snags. And that when Kieran uses the pronoun "we," it's hard to tell whether he means the Southwest Center or the Southwest Center in conjunction with dozens of other grassroots groups. In the environmental world, it is bad form to take credit for group work, making it difficult to determine exactly where one or another impetus originated.

The lawsuits are usually cooperative ventures even if the center's name goes first on the paperwork.

The white papers are contracted by the Forest Alliance.
"We pay them to do that work," says Sharon Galbreath, a bit uncomfortable with the assumption that they are Kieran's thoughts as opposed to the collective thoughts of the Forest Alliance.

But because they are willing to live like penniless monks, Kieran and Peter can work full time on environmental issues, unlike the majority of grassroots environmentalists, whose time is consumed by jobs and families.

Some of the Endangered Species Act listings included in the center's promotional material were actually filed by Dr. Robin Silver while he was affiliated with the Maricopa Audubon Society and before he was formally part of the Southwest Center.

Silver gave tens of thousands of dollars to Kieran and Peter in the years before the grants started flowing in. He is renowned for his own exhaustive--some would say fanatical--research and activism. But he is happy to let Kieran and Peter take the credit. He has other promises to keep: a medical career to tend to, and his race for Congress in the Republican primary against the antienvironmentally opinionated John Shadegg ("Silver Versus Shadegg. Rad," July 11). And although Silver has no desire to live their lifestyle, he has great respect and admiration for them.

"They're the heroes of the future," he says.

Kieran Suckling is often identified in the press as a biologist. Technically, he is not. If and when he finishes a long overdue dissertation, he will earn a Ph.D. in philosophy.

His first name is Irish, like his mother, his last name, English, like his father. He was the first in his family to be born in the United States, in Boston, to be precise, but his family moved out of the country while he was an infant.

Kieran's father was an engineer who built power plants, and after his work was finished in Boston, he took his family to the next project in Peru. As a toddler, Kieran spoke more Spanish than English. But after the family moved back to the States, the Spanish left him, irretrievably, like some lost computer file.

Because his father was an engineer, and his brother became an engineer, it was assumed that Kieran would be one, too.

His uncle was a Jesuit, and he gave Kieran the run of his private library. Kieran borrowed the entire philosophy department. After three years of studying engineering, he switched his major to philosophy.

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Michael Kiefer