Jim Chilton doesn't just admire cowboy values.
in them. And, like any true
believer, he's eager to share the gospel in
well-rehearsed sound bites, whenever the
Ask him, for example, why he decided to sue
one of the West's most prominent environmental
groups. "I laid in bed at night, wondering if
I was a cowboy or a wimp," he'll reply. "If
you're a cowboy, you stand up and fight for
truth, justice, integrity and honor. If you're
a wimp, you lay there and go to sleep."
Or, ask about nature. "For a cowboy," he'll
tell you, "every day is Earth Day."
That's why Chilton got so mad at the Center
for Biological Diversity. The Center tried to
make him the bad guy when he, the cowboy, was
supposed to be the hero. And that was an
attack no cowboy could forgive. (Forgiveness,
after all, is for wimps.)
And so he sued -- a switch, given that the
Center is normally the one filing the
lawsuits. Chilton took the case to trial, and
won one of the biggest punitive damage awards
Arizona is likely to see this year.
The decision didn't affect his ability to
ranch. A previous decision by the Forest
Service had taken care of that. But he did win
a lot of money. And in the process, he stunned
the environmentalists and rankled First
Amendment defenders. The Center returned to
court this month, asking the judge to throw
out the verdict, explaining that Chilton's
victory set a dangerous precedent, one that
would cripple the rights of anyone in the
business of mouthing off to the government.
The judge is now considering the Center's
To the Center, it's nothing less than a
travesty of justice.
"This is a very wealthy California banker,
but the jury bought into that good-old-boy
rancher thing," says Kieran Suckling, one of
the group's founders. "It shows that a bitter
little man with a very large bank account can
wage war on environmental groups in the
Jim Chilton sees it differently. The Center
didn't just lobby the government, he argues.
It lied. And it was lying about him.
The difference in how the two parties view
the matter, in many ways, reflects a
fundamental split between the Old West and the
Ranchers like Chilton will tell you that
they and their families have been grazing
cattle in Arizona for more than 200 years, and
even if their ancestors weren't always good to
the land, their profession is not
intrinsically bad. In fact, they argue,
they're doing better than ever before, thanks
to heightened environmental pressure, but also
because being good to the land is good for the
business of ranching.
Meanwhile, groups like the Center have
targeted cattle as one of the biggest threats
facing Western ecology. They've used the
presence of endangered species on federal
allotments to push for heightened government
One goal has been fencing off streams to
protect them, and the creatures who live on
their banks, from cattle. But ranchers say
limited access to water makes ranching
economically impossible. They charge
environmentalists with using endangered
species as a Trojan horse to drum them out
Alexander Thal, director of the Southwest
Center for Resource Analysis at Western New
Mexico University, says heightened
environmental controls have led to the loss of
50,000 cattle in Arizona alone. "The ranchers
are holding on, but they've had to sell off
property and subdivide their land to stay in
business," he says.
Tensions between the two groups are high --
so high that it took just one press release to
light the bonfire.
It happened like this:
In April 2002, the U.S. Forest Service
announced that it was reissuing the permit
that allows Chilton and his wife, Sue, to
graze cattle on 21,500 acres of public lands
south of Tucson, an area called the Montana
Allotment. No fans of grazing, and convinced
that endangered species were threatened by the
Chiltons' cattle, the Center for Biological
Diversity appealed the decision in June.
But the Forest Service stuck by its
decision. Its ranger basically told the Center
to get lost.