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Ranching With Lawyers 

The deep-pocketed Chiltons stampede their cattle critics

Speaking charitably, the Montana Allotment isn't without a touch of controversy. Nestled in range land around Arivaca, this federal grazing lease has cursed many a government biologist, and now a leading environmental group.

Last month, rancher and longtime U.S. Forest Service Montana Allotment renter Jim Chilton sued the Center for Biological Diversity and won. The settlement included $500,000 in punitive damages, and another $100,000 for harm to his reputation and livestock business.

The Chiltons claimed the Center for Biological Diversity issued misleading statements about them, left out information about studies that shed a positive light on them and cropped photos of their allotment in a misleading manner.

As reported in the Arizona Daily Star, Jim's wife says her husband wasn't amused when he spotted the photos. "It was a rather loud yell and cowboy words," Sue Chilton told the court. "I hope I don't have to be too specific."

Despite this rustic observation, the Chiltons are to down-home as caviar is to Rocky Mountain oysters. Sue graduated from ASU with bachelor's and master's degrees in Spanish and literature, and is wrapping up a stint as an Arizona Game and Fish Commissioner. Cowboy Jim is a highly successful Los Angeles investment banker. As for their son, Ken, he minds the family investment farm in L.A.

Nor are they strangers to legal saber-rattling. Over the years, the Chiltons have repeatedly complained about state and federal wildlife biologists who recommended grazing changes on their leased Forest Service land.

When former Gov. Jane Hull appointed Sue Chilton to the AGF commission in 2000, the ranching community applauded. And they weren't disappointed.

Soon after her appointment, David Lukens, of the hunting group Western Gamebird Alliance, noted that Game and Fish biologists were already treading lightly. "They're under fear of being fired," he said. "One department researcher told me that criticizing grazing is already like poking a dragon with a stick."

Jim Chilton's attorney, Phoenix-based Kraig Marton, says the successful recent lawsuit shows that the Center for Biological Diversity misrepresented conditions on the Montana Allotment. "The theme of the case is that photographs can lie, and liars can take pictures," Marton says. "We demonstrated--and the jury agreed--that intentionally false statements were made, and misleading photographs were used."

In a press release issued on Feb. 8, after the suit's judgment, the Center for Biological Diversity denied that the photos were false, and asserted that they were entered as public records back when grazing on the Montana Allotment was being evaluated. "We strongly disagree with this verdict," says the press release, "and are very concerned that it threatens free speech and may frighten citizens away from participating in federal decision making and comment gathering processes. We plan to appeal the decision and are confident that we will prevail."

Several attempts to contact the Chiltons for this story were unsuccessful. But they were hardly so shy when their federal grazing lease came up for a regular 10-year review in the 1990s.

Under federal law, grazing leases on Forest Service land are to be reviewed every 10 years, a process including evaluations of ecological health that are generally overseen by the relevant USFS district supervisor. But during the Montana's review period, many letters of complaint from the Chiltons--including some from law firms representing them--began arriving at Coronado National Forest headquarters in downtown Tucson.

Jerry Stefferud was an early Chilton target. Now retired and living in Phoenix, Stefferud was fishery biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, charged with monitoring the threatened Sonora chub on Chilton's leased land. And he didn't like what he saw. "My report showed that the fishery habitat was in poor condition," he says. "There was a lot of cattle impact."

Soon, the Forest Service was besieged by the San Francisco law firm McQuaid, Metzler, Bedford and Van Zandt. "As you know, I represent Jim and Sue Chilton concerning the Chilton Ranch in Arivaca, Arizona," attorney Michael Van Zandt wrote to then-Coronado Forest Supervisor John McGee. In the Nov. 24, 1998 letter, Van Zandt reported, "It has come to my clients' attention that members of the U.S. Forest Service staff, Ms. Mima Falk and Mr. Jerry Stefferud ... have publicly stated that the Chiltons have 'heavily overgrazed,' or 'trashed'" parts of their range.

"I demand," wrote Van Zandt, "that your staff members personally apologize to my clients and that they retract these statements and set the record straight. If they do not, my clients will avail themselves of their full legal rights to remedy their slanderous conduct."

Stefferud didn't apologize. "All of the allegations in that letter were completely false," he says, arguing that he wasn't even at the meeting where his comments were allegedly made. And he still stands by his assessment of the Chilton's leased land. "There could have been more protective actions taken" on the Montana allotment, he says, "such as reducing the amount of cattle impact."

Stefferud's Montana evaluation was among those prompting another letter to McGee in April 2001, this time from the former Tucson law firm Brown and Bain. In the missive, lawyer Michael McNulty threatened that it "would be legally foolhardy even to propose a course of action" impeding upon the Chilton's grazing activity. "Rest assured," the letter concluded, "that they will continue to take such steps as are necessary to protect their continued quiet enjoyment of those rights."

Two days later, McGee received yet another letter. This one hailed from the law offices of Fennemore Craig, and commented on evaluations of the Chiltons' leased land. The note suggested that Stefferud, a Forest Service employee, was misled by his Fish and Wildlife Service counterparts. "In my experience," wrote attorney Norman James, "employees of federal agencies frequently become confused and are inclined to accept whatever they are told by FWS employees. By working together, I believe that we can obtain a biological opinion that is reasonable and supports the proposed action."

Either way, Jerry Stefferud says his concerns were ultimately ignored. "I would have liked to see a cattle reduction on the Montana," he says. "But that idea was dropped."

Another biologist who felt the Chiltons' bite was Joan Scott, habitat program manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Five months before Sue Chilton was appointed to the AGF Commission, the Chiltons wrote to then-Commission Chairman Hays Gilstrap, complaining that Scott suggested a cattle reduction on the Montana. In the nine-page letter, dated March 28, 2000, Jim and Sue Chilton claimed, "Certain opponents of ranching have conspired to foment the anti-grazing agenda within the land management agencies and have sought to enlist Arizona Game and Fish Department personnel in their campaign.

"In the case of our Montana Allotment on the Coronado National Forest," the Chiltons continued, "we have documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act process showing that Joan Scott of the Arizona Game and Fish Department has systematically promoted the anti-ranching agenda."

Today, Scott remains a Game and Fish employee. "That was a very difficult period." she says. "I'd rather not talk about it."

After Sue Chilton was appointed to the AGF commission, The Arizona Daily Star quoted several critics worrying that wildlife would take a backseat to cattle under her tenure. Within a few days, the paper's Maria Parham wrote a suck-up piece, noting that the earlier coverage "made an illogical leap from Sue Chilton grazes cattle to grazing causes species endangerment to Sue Chilton is an endangerment to the Game and Fish Commission."

Gov. Janet Napolitano didn't reappoint Sue Chilton to the commission this year--the governor's office says she did not ask to be reappointed--so her stint is nearly finished.

Will the Chiltons may simply relax, and savor their triumph? That's not likely, given AGF Commissioner Sue Chilton's predilection for disparaging "environmental extremists."

And that's a rather broad category: "During the trial, their attorney asked every potential juror if they were a vegetarian," says Kieran Suckling, Center for Biological Diversity's policy director. "If they were vegetarians, he dismissed them."

But there was a purpose behind the question, says Chilton attorney Kraig Marton. "The Chiltons are in the business of producing livestock for consumption. And if someone did not like that business, they may not be a fair and impartial juror."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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