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Saving the Planet

Despite controversy and death threats, Kierán Suckling ’88 continues to lead one of the most powerful environmental groups in the country.

By Phyllis Hanlon

Kierán Suckling ’88With 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 and deforestation.

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, Suckling says.

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 says.

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 court.

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, Mass.


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