In the velvety quiet of Minnesota’s forests, the U.S. government has buckled to zealotry.
The zealots decreed: Trees are sacred. Thou shalt not cut.
And the government did their bidding.
Such is the theory behind an unusual lawsuit that accuses the U.S. Forest Service of foisting the “religion” of the Deep Ecology movement on all Americans by adopting it as a guiding policy for timber management.
The suit, filed here last month by a coalition of loggers, essentially contends that environmentalists have won. They have bamboozled the Forest Service into accepting their “religious” conviction that trees have spiritual value and thus should not be cut down. The loggers claim the Forest Service’s restrictions on timber sales violate the Constitution because the government is promoting one religion above others.
“They’re imposing this belief on me, and on everyone else in America,” complained David Glowaski, a third-generation logger who says the restrictions have put his industry in “very, very, very dire straits.”
Fed up and fearful for their livelihoods, the loggers are suing not only the Forest Service but also two environmental groups that have tied up timber sales in northern Minnesota’s two national forests.
The lawsuit calls attention to the growing spiritual dimension of the environmental movement--raising intriguing questions about when passion for a cause becomes religion.
“Environmental issues are, for many people, religious issues,” said Bron Taylor, a professor of both environmental and religious studies at the University of Wisconsin.
“Many Americans, not just extremists, view certain areas like Yellowstone or Yosemite as sacred and think they ought not be used for economic enterprise,” Taylor added. “Whenever people invoke the language of the sacred, we’re entering the realm of religion.”
Others contend that respect for nature, no matter how profound, is no more a religion than appreciation for fine wine or zeal for the Green Bay Packers.
“It’s not religion, it’s just basic values,” said Fred Krueger, who runs the Religious Campaign for Forest Conservation, a coalition that sees environmentalism as complementing, not competing with, traditional faith.
Courts are just starting to address the subject.
In a recent New York case, for instance, a federal judge held that a public school’s Earth Day ceremony crossed the line into religious advocacy when students were asked to give gifts to Mother Earth and to listen to prayers to a “Holy Earth Mother.” A nonprofit group dedicated to keeping religion out of public life has compiled a long list of other alleged offenses, such as a forest ranger urging kids to feel a tree’s spirit by hugging it.
Suit Is ‘Nonsense,’ Law Professor Says
Although the Supreme Court has never expressly defined “religion,” it has consistently held that mere philosophies don’t qualify, said Michael Stokes Paulsen, a University of Minnesota law professor who thinks the loggers’ suit is “just nonsense.” A religion need not have formal services or even a deity, but it must be built around a comprehensive belief system that’s as all-important as God is to traditional religions.
The attorney representing the loggers, Stephen Young, believes Deep Ecology passes that test.
Introduced by a Norwegian philosopher in the 1970s, Deep Ecology holds that the natural world has intrinsic worth. It is not a commodity. And humans have no right to plunder it or to tamper with the grand sweep of evolution by destroying habitat or driving species to extinction. To Deep Ecologists, thinking about a tree solely in terms of its dollar value as timber is as ludicrous as calculating the price of your mother as hamburger.
To Young, it’s clear this philosophy constitutes a religion because it offers believers a comprehensive framework for understanding the cosmos and their place in it. In his view, pressing Deep Ecology on the Forest Service amounts not to lobbying but to proselytizing.
“You can preach that trees are sacred, that the Earth is my mother, the sun is my father and all that. But in demanding that the government accept your beliefs, you’ve crossed the line,” said Young, the former dean of Hamline Law School in St. Paul.
The accusation baffles legal scholars who say everyone, even if motivated by religion, has a right to petition the government.
For their part, the environmentalists named as defendants are dumbfounded.
True, they believe--and believe with urgent passion--that the U.S. should not allow logging on public land. True too, they have filed appeals and protests to force the Forest Service to rethink certain timber sales.
But they insist that religion never enters their work. In fact, their protests are not spiritual but technical, as they point out flaws in environmental impact reports and financial projections.
“We’re not coming at this from a church; we’re coming at it from a school of economics,” said Sam Hitt, executive director of the nonprofit Forest Guardians.
“I just want the forest there for my kids. That’s the main reason I do this,” said Ray Fenner, executive director of the Superior Wilderness Action Network. “I like to walk in the woods. If they want to call that religious . . . .”
With a grin, Fenner adds that as a missionary he’s a flop.
His protests have delayed some timber sales. But he counts just one outright victory in the last decade: blocking logging on 1,500 acres of black spruce. So he can hardly claim the Forest Service as a convert to his view.
To be sure, logging in national forests in the Minnesota region has dropped by nearly 25% over the last four years. And it now takes much longer for loggers to get the permits they need; in some cases, the paperwork is delayed three years to allow detailed environmental impact reports. But a Forest Service spokeswoman attributed those developments as much to congressional meddling (more rules to follow, less money to work with) as to environmental appeals.
In any case, it’s perfectly legal for a government policy to be consistent with one religion or another.
The law against murder, for instance, traces back to the Ten Commandments. But that doesn’t mean the government has adopted Judaism as a guiding faith. Or take abortion. Catholics may lobby against it on religious grounds. Lawmakers may enact partial restrictions. That doesn’t mean government has promoted Catholicism above all other religions.
Young grants that point. Yet he insists his case is different.
There are secular, scientific reasons to outlaw murder or limit abortion, he argues. Yet there’s no good reason to ban logging in national forests other than a religious reverence for trees. “Government policy must be based on science, on common sense, on the secular political process,” Young said. A ban on logging, he maintains, is not.
Environmentalists counter with an arsenal of scientific justification.
They bring in biology: the need to maintain diverse ecosystems. They discuss economics: Taxpayers could earn more from their national forests by opening them to recreation than by grinding them in pulp mills, they insist.
They talk too of a secular goal: Preserving the wild for their children. “I look at my daughters and think, ‘What is going to be left for them when they’re my age?’ ” Fenner said.
To loggers, the issue is just as emotional.
Federal Land Provides Substantial Income
They’ve been chopping down trees for generations. And they don’t see the world as worse off for it. In fact, they view themselves as tending the forest, not destroying it.
Although less than 4% of the nation’s wood supply comes from public land, loggers in some parts of Minnesota rely on the national forests for up to half their income. To them then, this lawsuit is a matter of survival.
Newspaper editorials from around the state have ridiculed the loggers’ approach. “This lawsuit reads like fiction,” one read. “Scary,” another commented. Ran a third: “The judge should hoot this litigation out of court.”
But Glowaski is convinced the loggers will prevail. The way he sees it, there must be something illegal about environmentalists with a soft spot for trees forcing him out of the woods he too cherishes. “I feel I have a right,” he said, “to make a living off the land.”