Despite controversy and death threats, Kierán Suckling ’88
continues to lead one of the most powerful environmental
groups in the country.
By Phyllis Hanlon
philosophy degree in hand, a love of camping and a burgeoning
interest in the environment, Kierán Suckling ’88
headed west after graduation with no clear-cut plan in mind.
His involvement with a radical environmental group, a position
with the U.S. Forestry and Wildlife Services, some tree-sitting
experiences and growing concern for threatened species would
lead to his mission in life—the creation of the Center
for Biological Diversity.
Upon arriving in Arizona, Suckling joined an organization whose nonviolent protest
methods were meant to bring attention to the plight of endangered species. “Earth
First!” is the “surrealist wing of environmental groups,” according
to Suckling, who notes that this branch engaged in creative, extemporaneous activities
to raise public awareness. “We held the first tree-sitting in New Mexico,” he
says. Once the group had halted the loggers’ progress with their protest,
members relocated to a busy plaza in Santa Fe where Suckling and his compatriots
answered questions and educated thousands of tourists about the dangers of logging
Shifting his attention from the logging industry to ranching, Suckling initiated
efforts to reform cattle farming. He cited the cycle of destruction that grazing
cows create. Their waste products pollute the rivers, which lead to the desertification
of the land and eventual extinction of certain species of birds and animals,
In the midst of these proactive attempts to preserve the environment, Suckling
took a job with the U.S. Forestry Services. “In my position I was to find
endangered wildlife and report it. The deal was that Forestry Services wouldn’t
log in that area,” he says. More often than not, the trees were cut down
anyway. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 had earmarked 400 million acres
of federal land as protected from development, mining and other methods of destruction.
Suckling found that the law was often ignored in the interest of “lining
the pockets of private corporations.” He says, “America has the best,
most comprehensive environmental laws in the world. All of this environmental
damage is happening because the laws are not being implemented.”
In 1989, Suckling established the Center for Biological Diversity in an attempt
to control rampant development, water pollution and extinction of imperiled species
in the Tucson area. The financial help of 6,000 dues-paying members and grants
from private organizations such as the Ted Turner Foundation, the Pew Charitable
Trusts and clothing company Patagonia, enables the Center to conduct scientific
research, sponsor educational projects for children and pursue environmental
litigation. “We have been successful in reining in sprawl in Tucson,” he
says. “More than 731,000 acres have been designated for wildlife. We are
engaged in long-term planning programs for the county with hopes of bringing
balance and sense.” Suckling feels that the Center’s efforts have
set a good example for other cities dealing with growth.
Scientists at the Center are currently involved in several studies that focus
on imperiled plant and animal species. One of the most interesting of these projects
spotlights the killer whale in the state of Washington. According to Suckling,
the Center’s scientists have constructed computer models of these water
mammals and simulate conditions that affect their existence. “We want to
discover how long they can suffer environmental loss before becoming extinct,” he
Lawsuits that target big business as well as the federal government have become
an important function of the Center. Fortunately, a number of lawyers have stepped
forward to volunteer their services. “If we had to pay the full cost of
a lawyer, we could only afford to pursue one or two cases annually,” he
says. “With pro bono services, we have 30-to-40 lawsuits each year.” Initially,
it was difficult to attract the attention and services of an attorney. However,
with 86 percent of its lawsuits in the win column, the Center no longer has to
search for legal services. Since 1993, the Center has brought 188 lawsuits to
Suckling’s less-than-subtle tactics have at times led to death threats
and vandalism of his property. He merely shrugs off the dangerous aspect of his
job. “When you are trying to change the status quo, whether the issue is
equal pay, prisoners’ rights or protecting endangered species, you have
to be prepared to deal with backlash,” he says.
In 1996, Suckling was awarded the national Deep Ecologist of the Year Award.
The New Yorker and the Associated Press have called the Center one of the most
powerful environmental groups in the country. In addition to Tucson, the Center
operates offices in Phoenix, San Diego, Berkeley and Silver City, New Mexico.
A number of Vermont environmentalists are lobbying for expansion east. Once he
completes his doctoral dissertation on the loss of biological and linguistic
diversity, he may turn his attentions in that direction. For now, Suckling seeks
to follow Noah’s example and save the animals.
Phyllis Hanlon is a free-lance journalist from Charlton,