By Brian Seasholes
Executive Director, Southwestern Communities Coalition, Benson, Arizona
With the February 3, 2020 deadline approaching when several so-called environmental groups may follow through on their notice of intent sue the Departments of Defense and Interior to restrict Fort Huachuca’s water use, there is the possibility the fort could close for good. Make no mistake; this is these groups’ end game.
“Ultimately, the question is, can we shut down Fort Huachuca?” Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group leading the most recent threatened lawsuit, asked in 2014. “This area is too fragile to support the fort and its surrounding population,” Mark Larson, president of Maricopa Audubon Society, another of the groups threatening to sue the fort, asserts about the current threatened lawsuit. “Everything but the proving grounds can be moved to other military bases without losing national defense capabilities.”
The Center for Biological Diversity and others are trying to close Fort Huachuca with lawsuits to restrict its access to water and by lobbying to have missions moved to military bases in other parts of the country. If either or both of these strategies are successful, it will be increasingly difficult for the Department of Defense and Congress to justify Fort Huachuca’s continued existence. And it will be easier for opponents of the fort to justify closing it.
Closing Fort Huachuca would devastate Cochise County, for which the fort is by far the largest employer and economic contributor, with 21,327 direct and indirect jobs and $2.9 billion in annual economic activity. Moving all but the Electronic Proving Ground to other military bases, as those currently threatening a lawsuit advocate, would be a deathblow to the fort. There are roughly 580 people employed at the proving grounds; 399 civilians, 179 contractors, and 1 military, based on 2012 data. So by extrapolating, moving all but the Electronic Proving Ground would mean the loss to Sierra Vista and Cochise County of 97% of the jobs and economic activity provided by Fort Huachuca, or 20,747 jobs and $2.82 billion in economic activity. This would reduce Sierra Vista to a ghost town, devastate Cochise County, and likely lead to the fort’s closure.
Despite the danger to Fort Huachuca, there are some in Sierra Vista, Cochise County and beyond who are responding to the most recent threatened lawsuit with a wait-and-see approach, because this is the ninth legal challenge against the fort since 1994 but the Fort is still going strong. This is a grave miscalculation for several reasons.
First, it is a dangerous game of chicken. One day, those seeking to close Fort Huachuca may be able to land a knockout blow, especially because the eight previous legal actions against the fort have been successful, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. These previous legal actions have been body shots designed to weaken support for the fort and test legal strategies.
For those who think the prospect of the potential lawsuit against Fort Huachuca succeeding is farfetched, take a look at what happened to Hudbay’s Rosemont copper mine southeast of Tucson. Hudbay spent 11 years and over $100 million on permitting and legal battles alone and thought they were finally in the clear. Then in July, 2019, literally the day before Hudbay was going break ground for Rosemont, an activist judge halted the mine by agreeing with the radical and novel legal theory advanced by groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, who have been battling for over a decade to close the project. A similar scenario is plausible in the case of Fort Huachuca. All that is required is one activist judge, and the Center for Biological Diversity and fellow litigants are very adept at finding and persuading such judges. Past unsuccessful lawsuits to close Fort Huachuca are no guarantee of future results, especially given the additional reasons below.
Second, these groups’ ultimate goal is to cripple and depopulate rural America by controlling use of land and natural resources, especially water—a process better known as rural cleansing. “We will have to inflict severe economic pain,” in order for the center to achieve its goal, Robin Silver stated. “We’ve basically crushed the timber industry” in the Southwest, Kieran Suckling, another co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, bragged.
Third, the Center for Biological Diversity and its allies are constantly growing, looking to expand their rural cleansing efforts, are very patient, and will never stop trying to crush any industry that uses natural resources, directly or indirectly, or supplies these industries, which include ranching, homebuilding, mining, logging, and defense. An example is the ongoing litigation, by many of the same groups trying to close Fort Huachuca, to stop The Villages at Vigneto, a planed 28,000-residence community in Benson that would result in almost $24 billion of economic activity over eighteen years of construction. Upon completion, The Villages would employ 8,780 people permanently and generate $1.2 billion annually, making it Cochise County’s second-largest employer and economic driver—assuming Fort Huachuca remains as-is.
Another example is the Center for Biological Diversity’s threatened lawsuit in July 2019 to subject the entire 9.7 million acres of the Upper Gila River Watershed—about half in Arizona, half in New Mexico—to the Endangered Species Act. This appears to be the leading edge of the center’s long-desired goal of regulating entire ecosystems, especially watersheds. “An ecosystem is not a legally protected entity. A plant or animal species is,” Kieran Suckling remarked about his goal of legal protection of ecosystems. For the time being he will use the Endangered Species Act to work toward this goal. Regulating entire ecosystems, and grabbing the water in them, will make current problems created by the Center for Biological Diversity and allies look like child’s play.
Currently, the Center for Biological Diversity and allies are doubling down, because they are larger, more powerful, and more aggressive, especially in their efforts to grab water. The Center for Biological Diversity’s revenues (adjusted for inflation) and number of employees when the center filed previous lawsuits against Fort Huachuca illustrate this: 2002—$2.7 million & 30 employees; 2005—$4.6 & 54; 2011—$8.2 & 83; 2019—$20.5 & 188. It is wishful think that the most recent lawsuit threat against Fort Huachuca is business as usual.
Fourth, these “environmental” groups, especially the Center for Biological Diversity, are better identified as lawsuit mills because they do little if any tangible conservation, despite tens of millions of dollars with which to do so. Environmental lawsuit mills’ modus operandi is to ‘just say no’ and offer no practical solutions in their never-ending, litigation-driven campaign to cleanse rural America. Lawsuits are cheap and easy; real conservation is hard work and time consuming. Real conservation is done by groups like the Cochise Conservation and Recharge Network, which consists of the cities of Sierra Vista and Bisbee, Cochise County, Hereford Natural Resource Conservation District, and The Nature Conservancy. Since its formation in 2015, the network’s projects have conserved over 20,000-acre feet of water. In addition, Fort Huachuca’s aggressive water conservation efforts over the past decade have resulted in a net decrease in groundwater use of 71%, or 2,272-acre feet annually.
Fifth, these lawsuit mills have no interest in negotiation, cooperation, or practical solutions because their business model is based on conflict and confrontation. Cleansing rural America is a nasty business that requires brutal people to carry it out.
Sixth, Center for Biological Diversity has a proven record of lying, which other lawsuit mills have apparently supported. So why should anyone believe anything these groups claim? In 2005, the center was found by a jury to have defamed Jim Chilton, an Arizona rancher, due to publishing false and misleading photos and a news advisory claiming Chilton’s cattle caused ecological damage. The jury awarded Chilton $600,000 in damages and found the Center for Biological Diversity’s actions rose to “actual malice”, legalese for promulgating a malicious lie. In 2006, the center lost its appeal to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which issued a harshly worded opinion. Several fellow environmental lawsuit mills filed amicus briefs in support of the Center for Biological Diversity’s appeal, and apparent right to lie maliciously, including the two joining the center in the most recent lawsuit against Fort Huachuca, the Arizona chapter of the Sierra Club and Maricopa Audubon Society. In 2007, the Arizona Supreme Court declined to hear the center’s appeal.
It is high time for citizens, businesses, organizations and public officials in Cochise and other counties in southern Arizona to start realizing the lawsuit-driven war led by the Center for Biological Diversity will not pass them by, and to start fighting for their jobs and the futures of their families and communities. It is also high time for people, especially in the media, to start questioning why they should believe the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that maliciously lied, as well the Sierra Club’s Arizona chapter and the Maricopa Audubon Society, both of which supported the center’s apparent right to lie.