Who runs Tucson? Kieran Suckling. Carolyn Campbell. She works with developers to find common ground, while he fights to save every inch of desert.
(Note: I’ve underlined the language deception herein.)
January 19, 2001
Joyesha Chesnick jchesnick@azstarnet.com ‘contributed to this report’
Tucson Citizen
To submit a Letter to the Editor: letters@tucsoncitizen.com
Suckling  Campbell

Kieran Suckling (left) and Carolyn Campbell are strong advocates of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, a sweeping blueprint for growth management.

You could consider them a sort of good cop-bad cop among environmentalists. They’re each working toward the same goal, but their methods are markedly different.

Carolyn Campbell is the good cop. Easy-going. Accommodating. She’s the one willing to sit down and negotiate a compromise solution.

That makes Kieran Suckling ksuckling@biologicaldiversity.org the bad cop. Angry. Combative. He’s the one willing to slap a lawsuit on any foe who gets in his way.

Campbell is the executive director of the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, a consortium of about 40 environmental groups supporting a sweeping blueprint to manage growth throughout vast tracts of Pima County.

Suckling is the driving force behind the Center for Biological Diversity, an in-your-face environmental organization that has earned legions of friends and enemies since it set up shop here in the mid-1990s.

Between them, Campbell and Suckling define environmentalism in the Old Pueblo.

Campbell is a former staffer for Morris K. Udall, the southern Arizona congressman who has a permanent place in the hearts of most Western environmentalists.

A 21-year resident of Arizona, she has waged numerous battles on behalf of the Sonoran Desert. This latest one might be the most important.

This is our one big chance,” Campbell says of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which she is working to implement. “This is the largest project anyone has ever undertaken in the country.”

The plan essentially will determine where development may occur in the county. The Pima County Board of Supervisors endorsed the concept nearly three years [ago] and it is also supported by U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe and outgoing Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Work on the plan is under way, and final adoption by the supervisors is scheduled for 2002.

“That’s a really aggressive schedule,” Campbell says. “But the county has been putting so much effort into it, I think we can pull it off.”

As the executive director of a coalition of conservation groups, Campbell balances competing interests and demands of an array of organizations. They range from the mainstream Audubon Society to the aggressive Center for Biological Diversity.

“We’ve calmed some of the radical elements, and we’ve aroused some of the more conservative elements,” Campbell says.

In Campbell’s view, environmentalists and developers have failed to communicate with each other. The running dispute served no one and may have worked against the environmentalist cause.

We haven’t really tried to work together. We just tried to win,” she says. “There’s been no planning in Arizona because everyone was tugging at their elected officials.”

Don’t assume, though, that this greenie is going soft on developers. “Arizona,” she says, “has really been run by the development community.”

But through the conservation plan, Campbell says, developers and environmentalists can find common ground.

How we grow, where we grow, I don’t think we should leave that up to chance,” she says.

Suckling says the desert conservation plan is an example of what can be done to stem the horrors of uncontrolled sprawl. “There was a crisis begging for a solution, and that solution is the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan,” he says.

On a whole host of other issues, though, Suckling’s views are decidedly more edgy. He’s less interested in finding common ground than in preserving ground.

“We’re going to fight as hard as we can,” Suckling says. “There’s a lot of aggressiveness there, but there has to be. If you go and battle developers and you’re not in there to win, you’re not going to win.”

The center catapulted itself into the headlines a few years ago when it flew to the defense of the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl.

Known at the time as the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, the organization had previously focused attention on grazing, mining and logging issues. The pygmy owl forced it to change gears.

In the center’s view, the habitat of the endangered little owl was — and still is — far more important than a new high school the Amphitheater School District wanted to build on the Northwest Side. So it sued to stop construction of the school.

“It put us in the public eye in a really big way,” Suckling calls. “We had no choice but to jump in. It was like walking by a burning house. We had no choice but to run in and try to save the kid.”

A federal court ultimately allowed the school to be built, though with certain protections. Suckling remains undaunted.

“There’s a lot of groups that would not have taken on a school,” he says. “It’s really important that some group wants to be at the vanguard and say things like they are and take aggressive action to protect endangered species. That means you’re going to get criticism as well as praise. If you’re going to change the status quo, that is what’s going to happen. Everybody wants the praise, but a lot of groups are not willing to take the criticism.

“Our group is one that has been very willing to accept the criticism,” he continues. “If developers, miners and loggers aren’t mad at you, then you’re not changing the way they do business.”

Throughout the mid-1990s, the center filed more than 80 lawsuits on behalf of the environment.

Outside magazine not long ago proclaimed it one of the nation’s most effective environmental organizations.

Even a member of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association called the center a “surprisingly clever and effective” group of “zealots.”

As the center’s most prominent zealot, Suckling says he and his colleagues are doing what they believe must to be done to protect endangered species and preserve as much of the desert as possible.

This is an art, not a science,” he says. “It’s driven by passion and experience and creativity.”

Citizen staff writer Joyesha Chesnick contributed to this report.

Copyright 2001, Tucson Citizen.



Additional relevant, researched information:

Who’s got the Power?

September/October 2004

Sierra Magazine

Sierra Club

Kieran Suckling is the policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona. The organization has helped obtain Endangered Species Act protection for 329 species and “critical habitat” designation for over 38 million acres.


Suckling’s Site:


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