Longform

Owl See You in Court

Page 6 of 9

The center appealed more timber sales and grazing leases, and started suing on behalf of endangered species. And it earned the enmity of the citizens of Silver City, as well.

"They keep trying to use the Endangered Species Act as a weapon," says Tina Ely, publisher of the Silver City Daily. "In my estimation, it's the beginning of the end of the West. I want the wilderness to be here for my kids, but I don't want them dictating to us. You compare them staying home on grant money versus people out making a living and supporting our schools."

If being an environmentalist wasn't enough to turn many of the locals against a man, in 1994 Kieran further sullied his reputation by committing an uncharacteristically stupid act.

He was caught shoplifting a pair of hiking boots and some bedroom slippers at Wal-Mart. He pleaded no contest and was fined $67. He still can't explain why he did it, other than the stress of the center's work, compounded by breaking up with a girlfriend.

"I was desperately poor, which is not an excuse," he says. "It was a bad combination of poverty and stupidity--mostly the latter. And I hurt the environmental movement down there."

Peter was horrified.
"If Peter had had his way, I would have been fired," Kieran says. Peter wanted Kieran to be reassigned for a year, but the center's board decided instead to suspend him from the director's job for three months and bar him from talking to the media for six months. The locals began calling him "The Shoeman." And the other New Mexico environmental groups worried that Kieran had lost "his moral compass." Some cut him off altogether. Despite it all, the Wise Use opposition failed to make hay of the embarrassing arrest.

A year later, it was time to move on anyway.
No one remembers exactly when the Greater Gila Biodiversity Project became the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. The latter name emerged sometime in 1994. The group's interests had spread well beyond the Gila National Forest. They wanted to start canvassing, wanted to increase their membership and get more involved in politics. They needed the infrastructure and liberal attitudes of a bigger city. A city like Tucson.

The growth of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity corresponds with a general shift in environmentalism from emotional tree-hugging to science-based activism.

Kieran Suckling has been teaming up of late with Wally Covington, the Northern Arizona University forestry professor who has emerged as a prominent theorist of forest health.

Covington has proven that because of logging and fire suppression, the Southwestern ponderosa pine forests have been transformed from open landscapes dominated by big trees to dense thickets of smaller diameter trees. He advocates the removal of the thickets by thinning and controlled burning and warns that no more large diameter trees should be cut.

He and Kieran have co-authored opinion pieces for national newspapers on the importance of forest health. And recently, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl's office drafted legislation to help further Covington's research. Its preamble called itself "a bill to carry out a Southwest forest ecosystem health restoration demonstration project to demonstrate how to halt and reverse the decline of forest ecosystem health on federal land on the Southwest." Much of the wording comes from a set of forest-health recommendations that Kieran wrote for the Southwest Forest Alliance. At least until the last few pages.

In the interest of expediting the "demonstration project," the draft legislation calls for exempting the project from the National Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act to allow the land management agencies to act at their own discretion--leading many environmentalists to suspect that the bill is really a Trojan horse. When left to its own discretion, the Forest Service usually errs on the side of the timber companies.

"If it's such a great bill, it doesn't need to be exempted from public participation," says the Sierra Club's Sharon Galbreath.

Actually, the bill may be an attempt to cut environmental regulations--and cut environmentalists out of the decision-making process.

Greg Smith, the staffer in Kyl's office who wrote the bill, says that the bill will not likely see the light of day this year. And then he explains that there is not much commercial logging in the Southwest anyway, and that most logging is done for "forest health." Of course nearly any timber stand can be described in "forest health" terms to justify cutting.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Peter Galvin hiked through a timber sale west of Flagstaff in the Kaibab National Forest supposedly predicated on improving forest health by removing trees infested with dwarf mistletoe. By some curious coincidence, most of the trees on the sale that had been marked to be cut were huge, centuries-old yellow pines. The doghair thickets and smaller trees--the ones that indicate bad forest health--were to be left standing.

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Michael Kiefer