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Kieran Suckling got his name from an Irish saint. Now he thinks he is one.

Story and photos ©1998 by J. Zane Walley.

Copyright ©1998 J. Zane Walley
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Hundreds, if not thousands, of public land ranchers, loggers and miners have had their livelihoods destroyed by the ultra-effective strategies of the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity (SWC). They move like a band of guerrilla insurgents in their battle for public lands. The old, dogmatic environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society have became so bureaucratic and public opinion driven, that they have become slow and cumbersome in their efforts. SWC moves rapidly because decision making is concentrated in the activists who founded the group, and they appear not to give a damn about public opinion or the lives of people affected.
   The leaders and the workers live Spartan, almost monastic existences. The environmental cause seems viewed as a spiritual calling that dominates their personal lives beyond money, families, and the stuff of ordinary people. It is as if they are a cult or environmental subculture piloted and inspired by a charismatic activist from Massachusetts, Kieran Suckling.
   Suckling describes his team as "incredibly driven and passionate about the work we do. We are creative and manic. We have not played by the general 'rules' of activism. Unpredictability, speed and creative action has made it very hard for extractive industries and the government to anticipate or respond to us. By keeping everyone, including ourselves, continually moving in new directions, we have been able to destabilize the status quo of subsidized logging, grazing, mining and urban sprawl.... Many groups are hampered by the fear of upsetting their congressional connections, their funders, the media, etc. While we feel the pull of such things, we daily remind ourselves that social change comes with social tension and that our job is to create that dynamic tension, regardless of the pressure of back-down or compromise."
   Their "manic" guerrilla tactics have been efficient, damn efficient. The group's active litigation record-84 lawsuits in five years-on everything from waterways to woodlands to dams has attained national attention. The group says it has won 77 percent of final judgments. Suckling declares their success is built on what he describes as the two strongest forces of the environmental movement: science and law.
   "The law says that the best possible science is to be used in managing our public lands," he says, "so we conduct our own scientific research to show that's not happening, then we litigate. It's an incredible amount of work, but with an honest judge you can shut down a billion-dollar development in a heartbeat."
   I had corresponded with Sucking by e-mail for a few weeks before I asked for an interview. We had discussed the Wolf Release Program, and ranchers and environmentalists working together to prevent destruction of ranching and the environment by low flying military aircraft. We clashed on most points but found a common ground in agreeing that the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service studiously avoids being truthful with either side. I figured we had a few bones to pick and that it was best done in person, so I asked to meet with him at his office in Tucson, never really expecting him to agree. I was astonished when he consented to a face-to-face.
   So there I was, in urban Tucson, in the kind of neighborhood where bail bondsmen rent advertising space on the bus-stop benches and every other male has a tattoo and earring. It was 114 degrees and I was walking around mentally cussing Suckling for giving me the wrong address and trying to guess which worn residence housed the center's office. I had almost given up, when a voice behind me questioned "Jay?" I turned and was greeted by a slender, bearded, barefooted fellow in flowered shorts and a "Save the Rainforest" tee shirt. "You gotta be Kieran," says I. "Yeah!" he grinned. "Come on in."
   I did my homework before driving to Tucson. I read a mass of past court decisions, The New York Times, Backpacker magazine and a score of newspaper articles. He was viewed and represented by magazines and mainstream tabloids alike, as somewhat a "Green Savior." I was prepared to meet a zealot. I did.
   The SWC office was modest. Scuffed, dusty hardwood floors and dingy walls festooned with a collection of "Save the blah-blah" posters haphazardly thumbtacked hither dither. What stood out was that every spare nook and cranny was stuffed with computers, printers and stacks of files. Kieran introduced me to his doppelganger staff as a writer from RANGE magazine. That announcement didn't garner many smiles and handshakes. I felt like an atheist at a Baptist convention.
   We settled, or rather sunk, into an old worn sofa for the interview. Kieran put his feet on a scarred coffee table, wiggled hairy toes, and we commenced to talk for three hours.
   Years ago I met the late Alabama Governor, George Corey Wallace, when he was running for president on the American Independent Party ticket. Wallace was charismatic. He could look at you and convince you that everything he said was the gospel truth regardless of your political views. Such is Suckling. He has a powerful presence. He's likable, laughs easily, and what he says is emotionally persuasive.
   Kieran is a very complex, intelligent fellow, but openly surrenders reasoning to a view that all species, animal and plant, are as important, if not more so, than humans. He calls this "The suffering of the species." A portion of his belief system seemingly springs from his Irish roots, a combination of Gaelic history and folklore, and was steeled in a leading Catholic college grounded in Jesuit ideals of educational integrity and social justice.
   His mother was born in Ireland. She named Kieran (pronounced Ko-ron) for Saint Kieran, one of the 12 apostles of Ireland. Folk tales fondly recall the good saint who spent much of his life surrounded by wild animals. "There met him on the path a stag, awaiting him in all gentleness; and St. Kieran set his wallet on his back, and wherever the stag went, the blessed Kieran followed him."
   Another legendary figure who intensely influenced Suckling, is a 1700s Irish revolutionary, Wolfe Tobias Tone, founder of United Irishmen. Kieran expounds, "From Wolfe Tone, I have learned the importance of political action, even in the face of overwhelming odds."
   Kieran was an engineering student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. During our interview he recalled, "I began to find that technology has taken control of our lives; it has artificially filled the void of nature. There were several engineering professors who were very concerned about how little we, as a community, consider the real impact of technology on our lives. That brought me to think about the importance of living a conscious, political life. By that, I mean taking responsibility for our actions, and really looking at the long-term impacts on communities, rather than the short-term profits and comforts."
   Kieran dropped the study of engineering and enrolled in another Worcester school, The College of the Holy Cross, where he met philosophy professor Clyde Pax, the man he describes as the living person he most admires. Kieran mused, "From Clyde, I learned to not rest with human answers to a much-more-than-human universe, that reverence is the true solution."
   Professor Pax remembered Kieran in a telephone interview with RANGE. "A very, very intense person committed to search for meaning and search for placement, the placement that put us in existence, he listens to existence, or 'just sitting' in the Buddhist sense. He is not seeking his rightness, position, or glory. A mistake made should be corrected. The entire group that lived together was like that."
   The group the professor spoke of, along with Kieran, lived in an old warehouse in Worcester. He recalled his visits there. "There was no question that he was   worker and a leader even then. He was environmentally conscious from his early youth; took part in Earth Day. I was surprised of his method of fighting battles in court, for there are certain aspects of society that Kieran doesn't fit in well, but he saw an opportunity to use the force of the courts to achieve his ends."
   Kieran's using "The force of the courts," has created untold suffering and distress for many westerners.
   The effects of courtroom and backroom bargaining by the SWC deeply trouble   New Mexico rancher, Hugh McKinney. "What knocked me off my lease was a backroom agreement between the Forest Service and SWC [what some call The Tucson Back-Alley Agreement] that excluded ranchers. The judge did not approve it; he would not sign it. The agreement affects you to the point that's all you talk about with friends and neighbors. It bothered me to the point that I have no spirit, no energy to plan for a future. They took my allotment with lies and I have no recourse to correct those lies. We were forced off our land, but the Forest Service called it volunteering to quit."
   Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Tenney, Navaho County, Ariz., owned three, second-generation sawmills, now only one is operating part-time. "Our mills were shut down by the spotted owl and the SWC.... I believe these people worship the earth and its creations but not the Creator."
   Ray Fowler, a rancher in Beaverhead, N.M., took a double loss to the center. "Lost my leases and my sawmill because of the center. I just rounded up and sold my last load of cattle. Wasn't my year. I broke my leg hauling the last load of cows."
   The first significant coup d'état for SWC was in 1989, when Robin Silver, the conservation chairman, filed a petition to list the Mexican spotted owl as an endangered species. In 1993 it was listed as threatened. In 1994, the Southwest Center and Forest Guardians sued to force designation of critical habitat. In 1995, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service was forced to designate 4.6 million acres of critical habitat on the Southwest's 11 National Forests.
   The Mexican spotted owl victory catapulted the center's reputation into national  prominence and Kieran and his devout team have been on a successful offensive ever since. They have halted all timber harvests on 21 million acres of national forest in Arizona and New Mexico for nearly two years. Their lawsuits to protect riparian areas have forced the Bureau of Land Management to reduce grazing  allotments throughout the Southwest, curtailing the number of cattle in many areas by 80 percent. A court battle to protect the disappearing habitat of the Southwestern willow flycatcher is significantly restricting expansion of dams in the Colorado River basin, including Hoover Dam. A lawsuit to protect the habitat o  the endangered pygmy owl forced developers in the Tucson area to conduct environmental surveys, which in some cases showed the land couldn't be developed. 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 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
   The economic impacts of these actions are literally beyond measure. The cost to the taxpayer in the dozens of endless court battles has not even been estimated. Public land agencies are forced to spend their time responding to lawsuits and documenting their compliance to lost cases, instead of managing the land  Countless jobs are lost, resources rendered useless, property depreciated or made worthless, city and county tax bases destroyed. And the people, young and old? Removed from their homes, livelihoods and friends, most will have to struggle to start anew.
   I asked Kieran's old professor, Pax, a hard question during the telephone interview. "What do you think of the pain, human suffering, the dismantling of rural communities created by Kieran's actions?"
   The professor's indifferent answer was a revelation that brought Suckling's environmental philosophy back to its seed. "He doesn't see any other way to proceed in his work without disruption like that! He doesn't do it for the sake of disruption, but he is not going to stop his work simply because people are uncomfortable with it!"
   I had asked Kieran similar questions in our Tucson meeting.
   Walley: "What about those people you are putting off the land and out of work? What is your ethic and social responsibility to those humans?"
   Suckling answered slowly and cautiously, choosing each word with care and sidestepping the question: "Our government and its corporate sponsors have created a system of subsidies that has to be abolished. They turned the lands into a commodity. We have to get public land users off this welfare system. It is not a simple thing to break those chains."
   Walley: "But what about those people who are suffering during this change?"
   Suckling: "As I say, it is not a simple thing. We have entire communities that have  grown up in this system of land-based government subsides. To change that is not a painless thing."
   Walley: "You, are creating rural refugees!"
   Kieran's ego finally shows, his speech picks up speed and emphasis: "It's more than rural. I'm dealing with the Grand Canyon, Hoover Dam and Los Angeles. Thirteen million people are used to getting their water this way, I say that's great, but we are going to show them a different way to do it!"
   Walley: "You are forcing change on society and you are aware of it?"
   Suckling: "Yeah! Isn't that what an activist is! What do you think an activist is? We change society!"
   Walley: "Can't you do this in a humane and gentle way?"
   Suckling: "It is sad, but I don't hear you put that in a direct relationship to the effect on the land. I hear you talk about the pain of the people but I don't see you match that up with the pain of the species."
   Walley (dumbfounded): "What?"
   Suckling: "A loach minnow is more important, than say, Betty and Jim's ranch-a thousand times more important. I'm not against ranching, it is a job. My concern is the impact on the land."
   Walley: "Ranchers across America and Australia are going to read this article Kieran. What would you say to them?"
   Suckling: "The logging industry denied for years that logging damaged the land. Because they refused to acknowledge problems or change their operations, the   came under tremendous public pressure, which led to a massive collapse of the industry on public lands. Thus far, the ranching industry is heading down the same   path. Its obstacles will be far greater: many more species are threatened by grazing than by logging, the public is much more aware of environmental damage today than a decade ago, and activists are bringing skills and organizing abilities to the overgrazing issue which have been honed in the logging battles. Ranchers should take a long hard look at what happened with the logging industry. They should also take a long hard look at the reality of overgrazing on public lands. If the industry does not acknowledge and change, it won't exist on public land two decades from now. Ultimately it will be ranchers, not environmentalists, who determine whether public lands grazing will continue."
   Walley: "Do you see a middle-ground with the ranching industry? Compromise? If so, what are the parameters you could work within?"
   Suckling: "I sincerely believe that cattle ranching has done more damage to public lands in the Southwest than logging, mining, urban sprawl, or any other extractive use. While it is easy to see the scars of logging and sprawl, the denuding of groundcover, erosion of soils, and destruction of riparian vegetation is far more widespread. Numerous scientific studies confirm that species endangerment in the Southwest is more closely connected to grazing than any other single event. That said, I also have no personal dislike of cattle grazing. If cattle can be run on public lands and not destroy the environment, that's fine with me, but it is up to the ranching industry to change its practices and demonstrate public lands can be economically grazed without damaging the land. That is the forum of compromise.  We have worked out a few projects with loggers because it has been demonstrated that small trees in thickets can be removed while benefiting the environment. The ranching industry needs to demonstrate the same. Happy talk about 'sustainability' is just talk. Extrapolations from private lands in different ecosystems to public lands are unconvincing. The parameters, then, have to take the form of demonstration."
   Grants from Ted Turner, Patagonia, E-sprit, and other foundations, plus money from its growing membership of 4,000 finance Suckling's organization. Similarly financed eco-lawfirms provide the SWC with free legal representation. Free that is, if, they lose the case. When they win, the attorneys' fees are paid through the federal court system with good old-fashioned tax money. Your tax money.
   Why do federal courts take the science of SWC biologists over that of federal agencies in their devastating determinations? Where is the balance, the "justice for all"? Why are the decisions made by the courts so one-sided, so biased?
   To some, it seems that the federal courts and the center function as a team. J.T. Hollimon, a rancher from hard-hit Catron County, N.M., readily sums up the lopsided situation. "I think the man is power hungry. 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 in Tucson, 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."

*  *  *

Jay Walley lives and works around Lincoln, N.M. He is constantly on the road looking for stories for RANGE in New Mexico, Arizona, southern Colorado and Texas. If you have any tips, you can reach him at:

<> or P.O. 161, Lincoln, NM 88338.


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