Forest Grump

A prominent Southwestern environmental group is at the center of a squirrelly federal lawsuit

They worship trees, you know.

A Minneapolis attorney from a conservative think tank has convinced loggers in northern Minnesota to file suit against Forest Guardians, a Santa Fe-based environmental group, for allegedly influencing the U.S. Forest Service into making logging decisions based on the religion of "Deep Ecology."

In October, attorney Stephen Young sued the Forest Service, Forest Guardians and a Minnesota environmental coalition called Superior Wilderness Action Network (SWAN). As stated in the suit, "Deep Ecology is a religious belief system, akin to Native American religions, which places nature at the center of creation. . . . Deep Ecology wants people to have a come to nature experience instead of a come to Jesus, Allah, or Buddha experience as the core of their faith in this life."

Mike Wartella
Mike Wartella

And since religion has no place in government decisions such as how many low-cost logs get sold to logging companies, the suit alleges, the Forest Service and the enviros have violated the Constitution and should cough up the nearly $600,000 that the loggers feel they've lost in business.

Forest Guardians has a strong presence in Arizona. It was a co-plaintiff in the federal spotted owl suits that shut down logging in this state for 18 months. It fought with the Arizona State Land Department over that agency's refusal to lease grazing parcels to groups wanting to keep cows off of them and restore the range. In the last three years, in order to protest the Forest Service's logging policies, it has ventured farther from the Southwest, appealing some 300 timber sales nationwide, including eight in Superior National Forest in Minnesota, near the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and the Canadian border.

In the Southwest, nearly all timberland is owned by state and federal agencies; little is privately held. The opposite is true in Minnesota. But public trees are cheaper than private-land trees, so when Forest Guardians and other groups began succeeding in getting the Forest Service to modify timber sales, the locals took notice.

"It's public land and public resources, that's what we're talking about," says Larry Jones of the Associated Contract Loggers, one plaintiff in the case. "The Forest Service allows itself to be manipulated by these values other than base it on ecological science or forest science."

Actually, it was Young, the attorney, who brought those values to the loggers' attention.

"When you started to look at these groups they all had the same goals, like zero cut and biodiversity and all that," Jones continues. "[Young] came and talked to us about his theory that religion, this earth-based worship or spirituality was behind it."

In October, Young filed suit against Forest Guardians and SWAN, though the two groups had never worked together. Both had appealed timber sales in the Superior National Forest. So had the Sierra Club, but as SWAN's Ray Fenner points out, "They probably didn't want to go after the Sierra Club, because they have banks of lawyers."

Fenner says the content of the suit caught him off guard.

"I had heard the term 'Deep Ecology,' but I really, truly didn't know what it meant," he says. "You'd hear it bantered about. I assumed it was someone who cared deeply about ecology. I never felt the need to figure out what it meant."

Whether Deep Ecology is actually a religion is a matter of interpretation. The term was coined by a Norwegian philosopher in the early 1970s, and one of its tenets is that, in the grand scheme of things, man is just one of many species. Now, biologists may not have a problem with such a statement, but the terminology resonates with certain principles of Buddhism and Native American religions, not to mention with the New Agey language of people looking for love in cosmic places. Environmentalism has even become a spiritual theme in mainstream Christian groups, giving rise to activist organizations with names like Christians Caring for Creation and Evangelical Environmental Network.

"There's this whole religious movement based on environmental values that has little to do with the environmental movement," says Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians. "It's happening in Christian communities, Catholic, Protestant, Lutheran, Methodist. This whole movement that's known as green Christianity is actually sweeping the country."

But neither Forest Guardians nor SWAN claims any affiliation with those groups.

Young was in Thailand when New Times called about his lawsuit, and so he explained his conspiracy theory via fax. "The assertion about religious beliefs driving certain extreme and uncompromising environmental demands rests on two points: first, that such demands flow from a belief in Deep Ecology and second, that Deep Ecology consists of religious or a priori, non-testable, non-scientific assertions about the ultimate meaning of human life and existence."

How far does the conspiracy go?

"We believe that many public servants of the USFS believe in Deep Ecology but the scope of that influence on public policy is to be found through discovery in the litigation," he continues. "Note that Clinton in ordering 40 million acres to be transformed into roadless wilderness referred to 'sacred spaces' and promoting 'spiritual renewal.' When did the federal government get into the business of promoting the sacred and the spiritual?"

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