PLAYING OUTSIDE THE RULES
Kieran Suckling got his name from an Irish saint. Now he thinks
he is one.
Story and photos ©1998 by 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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
<email@example.com> or P.O. 161, Lincoln, NM 88338.