Owl See You in Court

Like two boys at the swimming hole, Kieran Suckling and Peter Galvin pulled off their shorts and tee shirts and jumped feet-first and butt-naked into the coffee-with-cream-colored waters of the San Pedro River just east of Sierra Vista. It had been a hot-desert hike down from the main road. And though the big trees hugging the riverbanks, nature's swamp cooler, had dropped the temperature ten degrees, the water was just too inviting.

In Michigan or Pennsylvania, Arkansas or Florida, the San Pedro River might be called a creek or a stream--or maybe even be mistaken for a drainage ditch. But here in Arizona it passes for a river. In fact, it's the last major undammed, unchanneled perennial stream in the state. Because it floods when it wants to and runs where it wants to, it's a magical remnant of what desert riparian areas once were, not very many years ago: cottonwoods and willows and songbirds and cattails.

Just two generations back, the Salt River between Phoenix and Tempe was an even larger oasis of grass and green trees. It has only been a gravel pit since Roosevelt Dam was dedicated in 1911.

Kieran and Peter are the co-founders with Dr. Robin Silver, the Phoenix-based environmentalist and candidate for Congress, of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson-based environmental think tank.

No one ever seems to refer to them by anything but their first names: Kieran and Peter. It's not in a one-name celebrity sort of way, but more in the style of Sixties-radical activists like Jane and Jerry and Abbie. Even people who don't like them very much refer to them by their first names. And there are plenty of people who don't like them, because they are arguably the Southwest's most ardent and irritating environmental activists.

An earlier generation of hard-core environmentalists engaged in civil disobedience and the kind of eco-sabotage pranks that late author Edward Abbey called "monkeywrenching," and Kieran and Peter cut their teeth on Earth First demonstrations. But now they work through the legal system, feverishly filing lawsuits and using the Endangered Species Act as a bludgeon to slow or stop development.

They have filed countless petitions to list plants and animals as endangered, appealed countless timber sales and grazing leases, written countless Freedom of Information requests to monitor the activities of the U.S. Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service. And they were instrumental in bringing about federal Judge Carl Muecke's injunction last August forbidding all logging in the Southwest until the Forest Service grudgingly analyzes the effects that logging has on the threatened Mexican spotted owl. That injunction still stands.

"If it weren't for them, thousands and thousands of acres of Southwest land would have been lost," says John Talberth of Forest Guardians, a New Mexico environmental group that is a co-plaintiff in the owl injunction. "They are one of the hardest working groups I've ever encountered."

"I think in many ways they're the center of the movement in the Southwest," says Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First and the Wildlands Project. "It's this umbrella effect of bringing science into conservation. They have effected a revolution in this regard."

Kieran, 31, is a lean Peter Pan with eyes as brown as a spotted owl's and a high reflective voice that sounds as if it modulates through some higher plane. Peter, 32, is a longhaired wood gnome with a gentle manner that hearkens back to early Seventies hippies. If they are at odds with federal land management agencies, they are even more despised by the industries that accuse the feds of mismanagement.

At night their bearded faces slip into the American West dreams of ranchers and loggers and make them sit up suddenly in bed gasping and sputtering about spotted owls and godless socialism.

Because he is often the spokesman, Kieran seems to particularly raise hackles.

"I think the man is power hungry," says J.T. Hollimon, a rancher from Catron County, New Mexico. "He has an agenda and that agenda is to shut down the West. He has an enormous amount of power. He alone, through the judge down there [in Phoenix], can dictate to us, and he shouldn't have that power. They are going to put us out of business or force us to revolt."

And when Congressman J.D. Hayworth looks in his dictionary under "radical environmentalist," he sees an image of these two bearded men floating naked in an Arizona river just itching for development.

They and Robin Silver have already filed and lost two lawsuits trying to force the U.S. Army at nearby Fort Huachuca to evaluate all of its ongoing projects to see how they affect the San Pedro's riparian area. They're wary of the growth boom envisioned by the town fathers of the city of Sierra Vista, afraid that as the city pumps groundwater out of the underground aquifer, the river will be sucked down into the water table to take its place.