Suing to Save the Planet

article image
image courtesy of Center for Biological Diversity

Twenty years ago,they were Earth Firsters, living in tepees, trying to save spotted owls, and grafting together a shoestring budget from their unemployment checks. Today, the Center for Biological Diversity has a budget of $7 million, 62 full-time staffers, and 15 offices nationally. By filing 600 lawsuits and countless petitions against the federal government, the center has won threatened or endangered listings for 380 species. It has also, it says, secured 110 million acres of critical habitat and protected another 130 million acres. Here, one of CBD’s founders, 45-year-old director Kierán Suckling, explains the group’s overall strategy.

What was your first major victory?
A Mexican wolf reintroduction law-suit in 1990, our first. The Fish and Wildlife Service had formally declared the Mexican wolf unrecoverable. The Audubon Society and the Defenders of Wildlife had formed a wolf coalition to fight this, but they had no legal strategy beyond telling the government, “Pretty please.” We decided, let’s just sue instead. It got settled with the service agreeing to do a wolf study, which led to reintroduction.

The environmental movement spent a decade going to meetings and demanding action and getting nothing done. We realized that we can bypass the officials and sue, and that we can get things done in court.

What role do lawsuits play in your strategy to list endangered species?
They are one tool in a larger campaign, but we use lawsuits to help shift the balance of power from industry and government agencies toward protecting endangered species. That plays out on many levels. At its simplest, by obtaining an injunction to shut down logging or prevent the filling of a dam, the power shifts to our hands.

Were you hindered by not having science degrees?
No. It was a key to our success. I think the professionalization of the environmental movement has injured it greatly. These kids get degrees in environmental conservation and wildlife management and come looking for jobs in the environmental movement. I’m more interested in hiring philosophers, linguists, and poets. The core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law. It’s campaigning instinct. That’s not only not taught in the universities, it’s discouraged.

What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the mainstream environmental movement?
The environmental movement is strongest when it has a clear vision and is willing to be way out in front of political leaders, and is willing to cause controversy, which is absolutely necessary to change the status quo. I think it’s weakest when it too closely follows the Democratic Party instead of playing an aggressive nonpartisan position.

Climate change is an example. The national environmental movement has articulated no bottom line on climate reductions. It has let the Democratic leadership completely define climate solutions, so every climate bill has been weak. That’s why [the climate conference in] Copenhagen collapsed. National environmental groups did not ask Congress to do anything creative. They waited for [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid to take the lead.

Excerpted from High Country News (Dec. 21, 2009), the go-to source for great reporting and writing about the American West. A 2010 Utne Independent Press Award nominee for environmental coverage and general

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.