Guest Commentary

By harassing the feds to make a profit, the Center for Biological Diversity makes environmentalists look bad

It has taken me decades to be recognized as an environmental extremist. My "attack" on Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young, a National Rifle Association board member, in Sierra Magazine fomented a mass exodus from the Outdoor Writers Association of America. I serve on two foundations that award major grants to groups defending land from developers, and I write a muckraking column for Audubon called "Incite."

Actually, I'm an extremist only as defined by people who perceive fish and wildlife as basically in the way. For those folks, all environmentalists are extremists. But radical green groups do exist—and you and I are a major source of revenue for them.

The Interior Department must respond within 90 days to petitions to list species under the Endangered Species Act. Otherwise, petitioners like the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) get to sue and collect attorney fees from the Justice Department.

For 2009, the CBD reported income of $1,173,517 in "legal settlement." The center also shakes down taxpayers directly from Interior Department funds under the Equal Access to Justice Act, and for missed deadlines when the agency can't keep up with the broadside of Freedom of Information Act requests. The Center for Biological Diversity has two imitators: WildEarth Guardians and Western Watersheds Project.

Kierán Suckling, who directs and co-founded the Tucson-based CBD, boasts that he engages in psychological warfare by causing stress to already stressed public servants. "They feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are," he told High Country News. "So they become much more willing to play by our rules."

Those rules include bending the truth like pretzel dough. For example, after the center posted photos on its website depicting what it claimed was Arizona rancher Jim Chilton's cow-denuded grazing allotment, Chilton sued. When Chilton produced evidence that the photos showed a campsite and a parking lot, a court awarded him $600,000 in damages.

"Ranching should end," proclaims Suckling. "Good riddance." But the only problem with ranching is that it's not always done right. And even when it's done wrong, it saves land from development.

Amos Eno runs the hugely successful Yarmouth, Maine-based Resources First Foundation, an outfit that, among other things, assists ranchers who want to restore native ecosystems. Earlier, he worked at Interior's Endangered Species Program, then went on to direct the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Eno figures the feds could "recover and delist three dozen species" with the resources they spend responding to the CBD's litigation.

"The amount of money CBD makes suing is just obscene," he told me. "They're one of the reasons the Endangered Species Act has become so dysfunctional."

A senior Obama official had this to say: "CBD has probably sued Interior more than all other groups combined. They've divested that agency of any control over Endangered Species Act priorities and caused a huge drain on resources. In April, for instance, CBD petitioned to list 404 species, knowing full well that biologists can't make the required findings in 90 days."

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and his Fish and Wildlife Service director, Jamie Clark, together saved the Endangered Species Act from a hostile Congress. One way they did this was with brilliant habitat-conservation plans that rewarded landowners for harboring endangered species.

A few plans were flawed, but the center scarcely saw one that it didn't hate.

Clark offered this: "Back then, the suits came mostly from CBD. Now I think CBD and WildEarth Guardians are trying to see who can sue most. ... Citizens need to be able to petition for species in trouble, but this has become an industry."

Acquiring the public's attention seems to motivate environmental extremists almost as much as acquiring the public's money. Recently, the CBD petitioned the EPA to ban lead ammunition and fishing weights. There are lots of inexpensive, non-toxic alternatives, and lead projectiles for hunting and lead sinkers small enough to be ingested by birds do need to be banned.

But the Center for Biological Diversity sought a ban on everything—no exception for the military, target-shooting or deep-sea sinkers that ostriches couldn't swallow. It seems inconceivable that the center didn't know its petition was going nowhere. But for a year, its name has been all over the news, and now the center is suing the EPA.

The Center for Biological Diversity gives every environmentalist a bad name.

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