Opinion: Center for Biological Diversity is a Stain on Green Efforts

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, including 79 members and 22 supporting organizations. I serve on two foundations that award major grants to groups defending wild 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 they’re engaged in an industry whose waste products are fish and wildlife.

You and I are a major source of revenue for that industry. 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 get to sue and collect attorney fees from the Justice Department.

For 2009, the Center 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 helped found the Tucson, Arizona-based Center, 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, the court awarded him $600,000 in damages. (Photo above is from the Montana Allotment section in question.) Apparently this was the first successful libel suit against an environmental group, yet the case was virtually ignored by the media.

“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 Office, crafting amendments to strengthen the law, 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 Center for Biological Diversity’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. They deserve the designation of eco-criminals.”

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 instead of punishing them — as the law had previously done.

A few plans were flawed, but the Center scarcely saw one that it didn’t hate. “My frustration was not so much with lawsuits about listings, which fell like snowflakes,” declared Babbitt, “but with litigation boiling up around the plans.”

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. Bruce [Babbitt], who was committed to saving endangered species, gave me the air cover I needed. I have yet to see that kind of commitment in this administration. The Service isn’t making progress. 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 real environmental extremists almost as much as acquiring the public’s money. Recently, the Center petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the manufacture and sale of 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, outdoor or indoor 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, predictably, the Center is suing EPA. The Center for Biological Diversity gives every environmentalist a bad name.

Ted Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.

{ 3 comments…read them below or write one }

  • Bill

    Here is the Center’s response to Williams rant:

    Cashing in? Nope, just saving species every day

    Industry-funded zealots are angling to prevent nonprofits from protecting veterans, children, workers and the environment. With the absurd argument that nonprofits are getting rich by making the government follow its own laws, they want to ensure that only the truly rich are able to take the government to court.

    Even those who should know better are drinking the Kool-Aid on this one, including outdoor writer Ted Williams, whose recent essay in High Country News’ Writers on the Range accused the Center for Biological Diversity of “shaking down taxpayers.” Cribbing from the Internet like a Fox News intern, Williams serves up industry propaganda with a side of his own trademark use of “anonymous” sources and dubious quotations.

    Laws to make working conditions safe, ensure our water is clean, and protect the rights of veterans and children only work when they are enforced. But often they are not because of industry pressure. Witness the complete dominance of the U.S. Department of Interior’s Minerals Management Service by the oil industry in the run-up to BP’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

    American democracy guards against corruption by allowing citizens to sue the government. Now, taking on the government isn’t cheap. You have to go up against the entire Department of Justice. That’s easy for the oil industry, Wal-Mart and developers who have money to burn. Not so easy for the rest of us.

    To level the playing field, the federal government pays the legal fees of individuals, small businesses and nonprofit groups — but only if they win. If they lose, they pay their own way.

    In its campaign to revoke this essential equalizer, industry has launched a public relations war hinged on the big lie that nonprofits — especially environmental groups — are getting rich by ensuring that environmental laws are followed.

    The current darling of the propaganda machine is Ted Williams, who accuses the Center for Biological Diversity of filing petitions to protect hundreds of endangered species and then suing the government when it inevitably fails to rule on the petitions within 90 days. In Williams’ tightly scripted anti-environmental message, it’s a racket producing “a major source of revenue” for the Center.

    Nonsense. Between 2008 and 2011, the Center received legal fee reimbursements for an average of one case per year challenging the government’s failure to process endangered species protection petitions within 90 days. The average yearly total was $3,867; much less than the Center spent bringing the cases. Not exactly a get-rich quick scheme.

    Rush to court? Every one of these suits was filed after the government missed its 90-day protection deadline by months, and in some cases by over a year. I would submit that spending $3,867 of the federal government’s money to save the Mexican gray wolf, walrus and right whale from extinction is a bargain and a half.

    Williams dives completely into the propaganda sewer when he quotes an “anonymous” government official complaining of a Center petition to protect 404 rare southeastern plants and animals. The alleged “anonymous” source is allegedly outraged that the Center will file a slam-dunk nuisance lawsuit because the government can’t possibly study all 404 species in 90 days.

    In fact, the Center didn’t sue, even after the government missed its deadline by 420 days. Instead we developed a plan with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure all these rare species get reviewed for protection in a reasonable amount of time.

    The 1,145-page petition, by the way, was written by three Center ecologists with contributions by a dozen academic scientists and scientific societies specializing in aquatic ecology. The $75,000 research project took a year of hard work and set the standard for state-of-the-art regional biodiversity assessments. Far from a nuisance, it is a massive contribution of critical scientific information to be used by state and federal wildlife agencies.

    Without providing any supporting data — not even an “anonymous” source this time — Williams goes on to charge that the Center is raking in the cash by suing “for missed deadlines when the agency can’t keep up with the broadside of Freedom of Information Act requests.”

    Hmm. In the past four years, the Center received legal reimbursements for exactly one Freedom of Information Act deadline suit and the amount we received ($3,031) was far less than we spent forcing the Department of the Interior to come clean with the public over its offshore oil leasing program in the wake of the Gulf ofMexicodisaster.

    The Center for Biological Diversity will keep expending vastly more resources ensuring the government follows its own wildlife protection laws than we’ll ever recoup. That’s fine with us, because making sure bald eagles, wolves, wolverines and owls have a place to live and grow is more important than money.

    It’s why we do what we do.

  • Bill

    The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just gave the Center a positive ruling on 374 of the 404 Southeast species it petitioned to protect under the Endangered Species Act. The rest will be ruled on later this year.

    Congratulations Center, this is great news for the Southeast’s rivers and wildlife! I think Mr. Williams owes you an apology for using an anonymous source to trash this important conservation project.

    The State Monday, Sep. 26, 2011

    More than 50 rare plants and animals that have been found in South Carolina will be studied to see whether they warrant an extra level of protection from development and growth, federal wildlife officials announced today.

    Business leaders were skeptical of the plan, saying the federal review could result in more restrictions on people seeking to develop property.

    But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the review is warranted.

    The Fish and Wildlife Service said 374 species of rare plants and animals in the Southeast will be part of the study.

    It’s unlikely that all of the species would wind up on an Endangered Species list, but giving an animal or plant endangered species status provides protection that is intended to help them recover from habitat losses, overhunting and harvesting, and other factors.

    “The Endangered Species Act has proved to be a critical safety net for America’s imperiled fish, wildlife and plants,” Fish and Wildlife Service director Dan Ashe said in a news release. “Our finding today is the first step in determining whether these species need the special protection afforded by the act.”

    South Carolina species to be reviewed include the Carolina Hemlock, a rare evergreen that lives on rocky outcrops in the southern Appalachians; the robust redhorse, a sizable coastal plain fish believed extinct for 122 years until scientists rediscovered the species in 1991; and the Savannah lilliput, a hard-to-find mussel that lives in the Savannah River basin,

    Lewis Gossett, chief executive with the S.C. Manufacturers’ Alliance, said expanding endangered species status could hurt the nation’s economic recovery efforts.

    “It’s hard to figure out what the Obama Administration can come up with next to kill business in America,’’ Gossett said. “The only thing I can say is these kinds of things can destroy the opportunity to grow and develop.’’

    Across the South, the review includes looks at 13 types of amphibians, 17 beetles, three birds, four butterflies, 81 crayfish, 43 fish, one spring fly, 35 mussels, 12 reptiles and 43 snails, the Fish and Wildlife Service said Monday. Included in the review is the Florida sandhill crane, a long-legged, long-necked gray crane that resembles herons except for the bald patch of red skin on top of its head, the service said.

    The Center for Biological Diversity, which petitioned for the review, reached an agreement with the government earlier this year to look at some of the nation’s least protected, but most imperiled species, the center said today.

    “With today’s finding that 374 southeastern freshwater species will be considered for Endangered Species Act protection, it’s clear the Fish and Wildlife Service is finally taking action to help hundreds of American species that desperately need a lifeline,” said Noah Greenwald, endangered species director with the center. “Like so many species in our ever-more crowded world, these 374 species face a multitude of threats to their survival — habitat destruction, pollution, climate change and pressure from invasive species.”

  • Freedom1080

    What a great job exposing the greedy uncaring cold heart disgusting liars in CBD. They are nothing but tax leaches. So CBD let’s see you salaries how much are you stealing from the tax payers. I bet you are making 6 or 7 figures crying about fake endangered species like wolves. YOu clowns don’t care about wildlife all you care about is your paycheck.

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