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Tucson Citizen, April 5, 2009

Tucsonans profiled in book
By Mark Kimble

When you talk about a baron, you're probably thinking of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt or others of that ilk.

You'd be unlikely to apply the label to a group of young people working in a borrowed and cramped Tucson warehouse.

But they are "eco barons," according to a new book on the world's most influential environmentalists.

Although these Tucsonans work with a shoestring budget in a building that they have to vacate for three weeks every year to make way for the annual gem shows, they run what an author calls "America's most effective private environmental law firm."

Although they live and work in Tucson, they raised the worldwide alarm for polar bears, warning that the animal could be wiped out. And they have done the same for dozens of other species.

These barons are the founders and employees of the Center for Biological Diversity. And they are among the environmental giants profiled in "Eco Barons," subtitled "The Dreamers, Schemers and Millionaires Who Are Saving Our Planet."

The author is Edward Humes, a Tucson Citizen reporter from 1980-85. He left to work for the Orange County Register where he won a Pulitzer Prize and then turned to books. "Eco Barons" is his 10th.

In the book, Humes tells of Doug Tompkins, the founder of North Face and Esprit who surrendered his companies and wealth to buy land in Chile.

He and wife Kris Tompkins, the former CEO of Patagonia, have saved more rain forest than anyone.

And Andy Frank, who invented a plug-in hybrid car and has been wooed and snubbed by the automotive giants.

And Terry Tamminen, a southern California pool cleaner whose acumen led him to become that state's top environmental official under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and author of the nation's toughest climate-change law.

But Humes saves some of his most lavish praise for our homegrown Center for Biological Diversity.

The center has 20-year-old roots in the Southwest, starting when Peter Galvin and Kierán Suckling met in 1989 as they were counting and mapping Mexican spotted owls in New Mexico for the U.S. Forest Service.

When they noticed the Forest Service was planning to allow logging in owl territory despite legal restrictions, they told a newspaper where the owls' nests were. They were fired and became friends.

The two moved in with Dr. Robin Silver, a professional nature photographer and Phoenix emergency room physician who became a financial supporter. Eventually they started the group that has become the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

Humes notes that during its 20-year existence, the center has won close to 90 percent of its 500 cases - an unprecedented success rate in environmental law.

The George W. Bush administration didn't like listing species as endangered. But almost every one of the 87 listed during the Bush years was protected because the Tucson-based center "used the courts to force the issue," Humes writes.

And that is how the Center for Biological Diversity works: by forcing the government to abide by every letter of environmental law - especially the Endangered Species Act.

While more-mainstream environmental groups try to make progress by seeking compromise, not controversy, the center eschews that approach, Humes said this week in an interview. He cites a precept laid down by Galvin: Because 90 percent of the Earth's species have been wiped out or are endangered, there can be no compromise on the remaining 10 percent.

Humes said it is the polar bear case that has drawn the most attention to the center because it has the potential to force the government to deal with climate change.

It was the center that forced Bush "to concede, after six years of resolute denial, that there really is such a thing as global warming and that it is killing (among other species) the polar bear," Humes writes.

And that's an impressive accomplishment for a bunch of people working in a Tucson warehouse.

Copyright © 2009 TucsonCitizen.com

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton