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."

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?"

Young and his clients interpret current enviro buzz words like "zero cut" and "biodiversity" as Deep Ecology liturgy. The evidence, he claims, comes from writings on the Internet. Young, in the suit, and Jones, over the phone, single out a SWAN board member named Michael Zimmerman as further proof. There is a philosophy professor by that name at Tulane University who writes and lectures on Deep Ecology. SWAN's Zimmerman, however, is a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, who sighed as he told New Times, "I feel bad that I'm always the other Michael Zimmerman."

Young is just trying to make a political point, says Chris McGlincey, Forest Guardians' attorney in Minneapolis.

"He's found a vessel into which he can pour his political philosophies and his legal theories -- which are novel, to say the least," he says.

The U.S. Attorney's office in Minneapolis refused to comment.

"You have a lawyer that's trying to make a name for himself, and he's taking advantage of uninformed local loggers in Minnesota," Forest Guardians' Hitt says. "He's exploiting fear and uncertainty in rural communities. He has these bogus theories about the way the Constitution works. He's unprincipled."

Or too principled.

Stephen Young fits into another dogmatic philosophical movement sweeping the country. In addition to being an attorney, he is founder of the Center of the American Experiment, a Minneapolis-based conservative think tank that wants to turn back the clock, and not in the Daylight Savings sense. Its staffers and officers contribute articles to the local Minneapolis newspapers, questioning the need for multicultural education and Title IX (which guarantees gender equity), and even calling for Latin to be taught in schools, just like in the good old days. Former special prosecutor Kenneth Starr addressed the center's fall conference.

"The case is not about politics, it is about law," Young writes in his fax. "We want a rule of law to guide all who think about logging that common sense, science and compromise must govern our decision-making about use of trees and forests, not religious beliefs -- because they lead to zero-sum struggles not fit for pluralistic, democratic politics under our Constitution. If SWAN and Forest Guardians will agree that Deep Ecology is not an acceptable basis for public policy, we can settle this lawsuit right away."

Both Fenner and Hitt contend that their groups' appeals are based on science. But McGlincey asserts that even if his clients were tree-worshipping druids, it would make no difference in the appeals they file.

"Our position is that it's irrelevant to the lawsuit," he says.

Religious beliefs, especially those of Native Americans, are frequently cited in appeals of decisions proposed by state and federal land management agencies. Forest Guardians istrying to influence the U.S. government -- that's what appeals are for -- and whether for religious or scientific reasons, they have every right to do so within the democratic process.

Except that stripped of the religious novelty approach, the suit is about the same bottom-line complaints that have fueled the long-burning logging vs. environment debate.

"Plaintiff ACL and its members have suffered financially from reduced volume of timber supply as a result of actions and decisions taken by Defendant USFS," the lawsuit alleges. "Some ACL members were forced to acquire logging rights from non-federal owners at higher costs. Others had their volume of business reduced as other logging opportunities did not materialize."

"So the taxpayer has some sort of moral duty to provide low-cost timber to loggers?" Hitt responds as if on cue.

And Jones: "It really offends [the local loggers] when somebody from outside the area tells them they're doing something bad to the land."

Never mind that Young and Jones have been scalded by Minnesota newspaper editorials.

"It's a good side to be on," Young says, "the right side."

Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: michael.kiefer@newtimes.com

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