Longform

Owl See You in Court

Page 5 of 9

As a graduate student in the philosophy department at the State University of New York at Stonybrook, he was wracked by social concerns and the existential hand-wringing philosophies that most students encounter in college. But then he became enchanted by the natural world and man's place in it, transforming himself from Schopenhauer to Candide, Voltaire's optimist, who thought that the purpose of life was "to cultivate our garden."

Then rather than write that dissertation, he fled out West where the garden was still growing wild.

Whereas Kieran is introspective and somewhat aloof, Peter Galvin is effusive and easygoing, but so passionately committed to his cause as to be a prisoner of it. When he was 15 years old, he'd had a brush with cancer, and when he survived, he promised God that he'd live a life of service, though he wasn't sure what it would be.

In the traumatic wake of the cancer surgeries, he'd become a bit of a loner, and so his mother enrolled him in a private school close enough to their Framingham, Massachusetts, home that he could ride there on a moped.

One of his teachers was Thomas Lewis, who had spent time in prison as one of the Catonsville Nine; he, the radical Catholic priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan and six others were convicted of breaking into a Selective Service Office in 1968 and burning draft records with homemade napalm to protest the war in Vietnam. Lewis gave Peter an education in civil disobedience, taking him and other students to local protests at nuclear power plants.

And so later, when Peter packed off to Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, he thought he'd study political science. He got caught up in more protests and social causes: apartheid, and eventually, given the Northwest logging debate, forest issues.

He was arrested at protests organized by Earth First, the radical environmental movement founded by Dave Foreman and based loosely on the monkeywrenching tactics written about in the novels of Edward Abbey. After two years, he dropped out of school and took a job selling ads for a left-wing alternative newspaper; eventually he became its environmental editor.

But his interest in the environment brought him to Prescott College where he finished his degree in political science and environmental studies. (He has since earned a master's degree in conservation biology.)

In 1989, Peter got a summer job as an owl surveyor up in Alpine. Robin Silver's listing petition for the spotted owl had been filed that year, but the Forest Service was already surveying the owl population. Theoretically, once the birds and their nests were found, they would be pinpointed on a map so that they could be avoided when the forest was logged.

Kieran had met a friend of Peter at an Earth First protest in New Mexico (where he'd happily been arrested); the friend told him Peter was looking for more owl spotters, and so Kieran got himself hired. A year later when Peter graduated from college, Kieran persuaded him to move to Luna to work full time on the environment.

They lived a shoestring existence in a wood-heated ranch house that had neither plumbing nor electricity. In the summers, they searched for owls for the Forest Service and in the winters they lived off of unemployment checks. They each started environmental organizations: Peter's was Friends of the Owl, Kieran's the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project. Despite the grandiose and all-encompassing names, Kieran's group consisted of about five people and Peter's consisted of Peter and his girlfriend.

Luna is in Catron County, a hotbed of the Wise Use, antienvironmentalist movement, where county officials have tried to take over federal lands and pass laws requiring environmentalists to register with the government. After appealing timber sales and speaking out on environmental issues, it was only a matter of time before Kieran and Peter were run out of town. Their landlord told them he'd gotten so much pressure from the community that he had no choice but to evict them.

They moved 200 miles, as the owl flies, to Silver City, New Mexico, which is still in the heart of ranching and timber country, but has the mitigating and liberalizing effects of being a mecca for urbanites seeking a picturesque Heart-of-America lifestyle.

"That was a big move for us," Kieran remembers. "Suddenly we had telephones and fax machines and Kinko's." They stepped up their efforts and their membership, and started attracting grant money.

Peter's interest in spotted owls had brought him together with Robin Silver, and they worked together more and more frequently. Silver had filed petitions on the spotted owl in 1989 (it was finally listed as a threatened species in 1993) and he was in the center of a fight with the University of Arizona over its proposed Mount Graham telescopes.

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Michael Kiefer