For Minneapolis-based lawyer Stephen Young ’74, a tree is just a tree. Yet for others, he contends, trees are sacred objects.
Last October, Young brought a suit in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis, on behalf of Minnesota loggers, against two nonprofit environmental groups and the U.S. Forest Service. He contended that the environmentalists believed in a philosophy of deep ecology, which views trees as “living, spiritual presences” and amounts to a religion. The Forest Service favors this religion and has thus violated the separation of church and state, he argued.
Young convinced Associated Contract Loggers and Olson Loggers to sue. Four months later the judge dismissed the case, calling it “unseemly” and “baseless.” He also fined Young $5,000 “for daring to bring suit,” Young said.
Despite the dismissal and the fine, Young is undaunted. He and the loggers are appealing both in hearings this fall. An amicus brief on behalf of ten Minnesota counties was filed in the case’s defense. Sanctions, said Young, “have a chilling effect. It is an abuse of discretion by the judge that will intimidate lawyers and end up in the denial of justice. We would never have had progress in civil rights if all those lawyers had been sanctioned by judges.”
Young says he became interested in deep ecology several years ago, when he saw an increase in “religiosity in environmentalism.” At the same time he got to know activists in northern Minnesota who introduced him to loggers. He learned that environmental groups were going to court to block sales of timber from public land. The Forest Service had stopped harvesting timber on public lands until the appeals were settled.
“The Forest Service is given responsibilities by Congress, which include sustaining multiple use” of public lands, he said. “One of those uses is harvesting timber.”
The deep ecology movement could cause disaster in his home state, Young believes. “The success of deep ecology in ending logging in Oregon and Washington State put thousands of people out of work and closed down some towns.” People in northern Minnesota, Young said, “saw a small minority who didn’t live in their town and who were dictating what their future might be.”
Young and the loggers have reduced their request for compensation from nearly $600,000 to $45,000. In August he met in Washington, D.C., with the chief of the Forest Service. “What we are asking for,” Young said, “is that [the environmental groups] seek remedial government action only for scientific, secular reasons. They can’t get the government to impose religious values to stop a logging sale.”
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