Center for Biological Diversity is about power and control

We try to give people the benefit of the doubt.  We assume that native plant advocates believe what they say even when we know what they’re saying isn’t true.  We assume they share our commitment to protecting the environment even though we don’t agree about how to achieve that goal.

When the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) was required by the Arizona Supreme Court to pay $600,000 in punitive damages for fabricating fraudulent evidence to support their unsuccessful effort to take federal grazing rights from a rancher in Arizona, we assumed it was just an example of over-zealous environmentalism.  People who believe they are on an important mission sometimes think the means they use to achieve their goals are justified by the righteous ends of their cause.

However, recent events have forced us to reconsider our generous interpretation of CBD’s motives.  In particular, we find the Center for Biological Diversity’s action and inaction on these two local issues contradictory:

  • On one hand, CBD filed for endangered status for the Franciscan manzanita.  CBD’s clone, Wild Equity (founded by a former employee of CBD), sued when endangered status was delayed.  They demanded the designation of critical habitat—including 196 acres of San Francisco’s public parks– for a plant which is likely a hybrid of one of the most common species of manzanita and will require dangerous and polluting wildfires to reproduce.  This seems consistent with CBD’s long track-record of aggressively protecting rare plants and animals despite negative impact on humans.
  • On the other hand, CBD has thus far done nothing on behalf of the endangered Clapper Rail.  It has been over a year since studies have shown that the eradication of non-native Spartina marsh grass in San Francisco Bay has decimated the small population of this rare bird.  The assumption is that the Rail is exposed to its predators–particularly during nesting season–by eradication of dense, year-round cover provided by Spartina.  It’s also possible that the pesticide (imazapyr) used to eradicate Spartina is a factor, because the effect of imazapyr on shore birds has not been tested.  The absence of action on behalf of the Rail seems inconsistent with CBD’s extreme actions on behalf of other endangered plants and animals.
California Clapper Rail

Is Center for Biological Diversity motivated by money?

So how do we reconcile these seemingly inconsistent actions vs. inactions of CBD?  What motivates their selection of particular species of plants and animals for protection?

Ted Williams calls himself an “environmental extremist.”  He is the author of a regular column in Audubon Magazine which is appropriately entitled, “Incite.”  One of Williams’ articles demonizing eucalyptus is typical of the provocative approach of his column.  In that article, he fabricated “data” about bird deaths to justify the crusade to eradicate eucalypts.

Williams is proud of his credentials as an environmental provocateur and he uses those credentials to defend his criticism of Center for Biological Diversity in an article in High Country News (1).  He expresses his opinion that CBD is motivated by money.  He points out that CBD has filed hundreds of suits against the federal government, using environmental laws, such as the Endangered Species Act, and that every time it wins it collects attorney fees from the federal government.   The cost and number of these suits has become a major obstacle to US Fish & Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency in fulfilling their mandate to protect rare species.

Although these accusations are accurate, we don’t think this is an adequate explanation for CBD’s choice of issues to pursue.  We turn to the New York Times to put this accusation into perspective.  The Times reports (2) that CBD had filed 700 lawsuits when the article was published in March 2010, and they were successful in those suits 93% of the time.  Those suits forced the government to list 350 endangered species and designate 120 million acres of critical habitat for their recovery.

However, revenue generated by the success of these suits was only $1.4 million in 2008, compared with $7.6 million from contributions and grants.  In other words, only 16% of CBD’s revenue in 2008 came from their suits against the federal government.

Furthermore, the founder and Executive Director of CBD earned $116,000 in 2008, which doesn’t seem out of line for an organization with over 60 employees and offices all over the country (including the San Francisco Bay Area).

We don’t think the leadership of CBD is motivated by money. 

It’s about power and control

We turn to the New Yorker magazine (3) to understand and explain the motivation of Center for Biological Diversity and its local ally, Wild Equity.  In 1999, the New Yorker published an in-depth study of the leadership of CBD entitled, “No People Allowed.” 

The article reports the creation of CBD and its early history in the southwest where it was founded and is still headquartered.  Their initial efforts were direct-action, typical of traditional environmental organizations; then they discovered the power of the law:  “’We’re crazy to sit in trees when there’s this incredible law where we can make people do whatever we want,’” said Robin Silver, one of the founders of CBD.

Using federal environmental laws, they apparently brought the timber industry in the southwest to a virtual halt and they were making similar progress in eliminating all grazing in the southwest when the article was published.  Perhaps there was some benefit to the environment, but there was also significant economic loss to the human community in the southwest, according to the New Yorker.

So, what does CBD want?  The New Yorker tells us that the founder’s deconstructionist philosophy is “a decentering and disempowering of the human.”  Their goal is described:  “…the center is endeavoring to undo the dominion of man over animals and plantsthe only way to get to the desired state is to deconstruct stuff that exists in the world:  legal arrangements, social and economic forms, and even physical structures.”  CBD’s Executive Director tells us his motivation in the New Yorker article as well as the long term goal of CBD:  “[Kieran] Suckling cheerfully admitted that he’s ‘using one side of industrial society against itself,’ but only temporarily; in the long run, he says, there will be a new order in which plants and animals are part of the polity.  For example, legal proceedings could be conducted outdoors—in which case ‘the trees will make themselves felt.’”

“Good” tree may stay

We find the reference to the desires of trees particularly interesting.  Apparently Mr. Suckling believes he speaks for the trees.  What about the non-native trees which CBD demands we destroy on behalf of other plants and animals which it prefers?  Mr. Suckling apparently considers himself the spokesperson for just particular trees of his choosing.  Apparently the rights of trees will be limited to native trees when CBD has successfully established this new order.

“Bad” tree must go.

Mr. Suckling also implies that CBD’s control of the environment is only temporary until the new order is established in which plants and animals are in control.  This reminds us of a similar fantasy about a new social and economic model which was originally proposed by Karl Marx.  In creating the concept of communism, he envisioned a temporary dictatorship of elites which would eventually be ceded to a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”  The world has now witnessed many attempts to install communism as the governing economic model, but we have not seen the dictatorship of elites willingly cede their power to the people.

This quote of CBD’s Executive Director from Ted Williams’ article, also helps us to understand why CBD sues the federal government to achieve their goals:  “’They [employees of federal agencies] feel like their careers are being mocked and destroyed—and they are,’ he told the High Country News.  ‘So they become much more willing to play by our rules.’”   In other words, suing—and the threat of suit—is CBD’s means of controlling the federal agencies that are responsible for protecting the environment, i.e., forcing them to do what CBD wants.

Humans will always be in control of land-use decisions.  It’s only a question of which humans are in control and CBD intends to be the humans in control.  If we hand them that power, we will find it difficult to wrest it from them if we decide they are not using that power wisely or fairly.

We can’t defend all of the activities of humans when we damage the environment to suit our purposes.  However, we don’t think the Center for Biological Diversity would be a better steward of our land.  Even if they were capable of wise land-use decisions, we are unwilling to suspend democratic methods of making those decisions.  As human society repeatedly demonstrates, absolute power corrupts absolutely.  We are no more willing to hand our fate to Center for Biological Diversity than to any other despot, benevolent or not.

We invite Center for Biological Diversity to prove us wrong

We would like Center for Biological Diversity to prove us wrong.  CBD can demonstrate that their motivation is not simply the confiscation of public land from human use as a means of destroying human society and civilization.  They can start by filing suit on behalf of the endangered Clapper Rail to stop the pointless and destructive eradication of non-native Spartina in San Francisco Bay, using a toxic pesticide about which little is known.  CBD can demonstrate their commitment to protecting animals even if humans are not punished by that effort.


(1)    Ted Williams, “Extreme Green,” High Country News, May 21, 2011

(2)    Anne Mulkern, et. al., “Brazen Environmental Upstart Brings Legal Muscle, Nerve in Climate Debate,” New York Times, March 30, 2010.

(3)    Nicholas Lemann, “No People Allowed,” New Yorker, November 22, 1999.