For most of his 53 years, logger Dave Glowaski has extracted a living from the vast tracts of woodland in the Superior National Forest. It has always been a hardscrabble business, he says, one that routinely puts small-time operators like himself at odds with timber mills, banks, and the government. But Glowaski, who is also mayor of the tiny Arrowhead-region town of Orr, has become increasingly worried of late about the fate of his livelihood. He points to the dramatic nationwide decline in timber sales on federal land during the last decade; and he is alarmed by the intensifying calls by environmentalists to ban all logging in national forests--a daunting prospect for lumberjacks in the Orr area, where about 60 percent of logged timber comes from what he refers to as "the Superior." "We're just trying to save our way of life," Glowaski says. "We feel we're at war."
Fueled by that conviction, Glowaski and the other 125 dues-paying members of the Associated Contract Loggers in northern Minnesota are opting for a roll of the dice in U.S. District Court. Their suit against the U.S. Forest Service and two anti-logging groups, to be filed next month, marks the first time the decade-old organization has pressed its grievances in a courtroom. It revolves around a novel, if somewhat tortured, legal argument. The tactic, Glowaski explains, was conceived of last January when the ACL board began casting about for remedies to what he and his fellow loggers regard as their prime problem: a once-thriving Forest Service timber sales program they believe is being held hostage by the aggressive maneuverings of environmental groups.
Enter big-city lawyer Steve Young--former Republican U.S. Senate candidate and quirky ideologue with ties to the Center for the American Experiment, a right-leaning Minneapolis-based think tank. After listening to the loggers' complaints, Young concluded that the growing opposition to logging is fundamentally religious in nature--an outgrowth of the so-called deep ecology movement, which, he insists, masks its spiritual aims with "pseudo science." According to Young, the Forest Service has become a "tool" of this movement; so he has crafted a legal complaint charging that the agency has violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from favoring or endorsing religion.
"We're not arguing that the Forest Service has become a believer in this religion," he cautions. "But we're arguing that their failure to raise these religious questions has forced them to become an agent of religious purpose. If these [environmental] groups are saying that trees are fundamentally inviolate and sacred, that there should be some bioreserve that humans should be kept away from, my response is that, no, that's just your particular religious view and you can't force the government to impose that idea."
But as Young sees it, this creed has insinuated its way into government at the highest levels: "I read Al Gore's book and I said, no shit, there's a coherence here, and that coherence is deep ecology. So we're [filing the suit] to establish new law--new ways of thinking about the environment."
"Is this guy for real?" asks Ray Fenner, who heads the St. Paul-based Superior Wilderness Action Network, which is named in the suit. He notes with some amusement that SWAN now finds itself in the unlikely position of assuming the role of codefendant with its traditional nemesis, the Forest Service--an agency SWAN has sued in the past. Still, he is of one mind with the Forest Service in insisting that the loggers' claim is way off base: "It's bunk, total bunk. To tell you the truth--and I'm going to sound really naive here--but I don't even quite know what deep ecology is. All we're trying to do is save our forests from getting cut down." Fenner figures SWAN has filed legal appeals against "10 or 11 timber sales," but those appeals were aimed at preserving delicate ecosystems, not advancing any religious doctrine.
Says SWAN attorney Ernest Grumbles, "The irony of this is that [attorney Young] is using the First Amendment to attack First Amendment-protected activities. It's clearly meant to stop public interest groups from commenting on important public policy." Grumbles adds that SWAN will seek not only dismissal of the suit, but also request the court to force ACL to pay all legal fees and court costs.
Sam Hitt, who directs the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, the third named defendant in the lawsuit, is equally contemptuous of ACL's ploy. "This is a slap suit--a strategic suit to discourage public participation," he says. "It doesn't have any merit, but once someone sues you, you have to defend yourself. And that costs money." Hitt characterizes deep ecology as the simple acknowledgment that nature "has an intrinsic right to exist"--a value most Americans now accept, he says, though government policy seldom reflects that. "It's wrong and misguided and politically motivated to call it a religious movement." In fact, Hitt says, Forest Guardians' most notable legal arguments opposing logging have been rooted in the most secular of concerns--money. (In a federal lawsuit filed last year, the group called for an end to all logging in national forests on the grounds that timber sales programs rack up massive economic losses to the government; that lawsuit is pending).
What's more, Hitt continues, groups like Forest Guardians and SWAN have been less successful in pushing their agenda than loggers seem to believe. The recent declines in federal timber sales, he says, don't reflect any wholesale change in regulatory policy: "I wish we could take credit for it, but I think it has more to do with the fact that the large valuable trees are gone."
The Forest Service insists that its handling of legal and administrative appeals by environmentalists conforms with existing law. Tom Wagner, the deputy forester at the Superior National Forest headquarters in Duluth, roundly dismisses the ACL's allegation that the government has violated the Constitution. "I don't really know where they're coming from with this," he says. But Wagner concedes that the rising tide of challenges has indeed slowed the logging industry. In the past few years, nearly all proposed timber sales in Superior have been appealed by environmental groups, including SWAN and Forest Guardians. Though most sales ultimately go forward, he notes, Forest Service staff now devote much more time to dealing with paperwork and preparing environmental assessments--and that drives up the cost of the timber sales program.
Back in Orr, logger Glowaski says the mood is bleak among loggers when it comes to their financial prospects. "There's a lot of pessimism, and there's a growing hatred for the federal government and these conservation groups. Animosity builds and animosity grows to downright hatred," Glowaski remarks, adding that the ACL has its hopes pinned on hauling their green enemies into the courtroom and letting a judge sort things out.
That response is one SWAN's Fenner understands. "A lot of them detest me for what I do," he figures. "I'm sorry for that." Loggers, he adds, with just a hint of regret in his voice, "are getting screwed right and left." The solution to their woes, Fenner offers, lies in federally sponsored retraining for the folks losing their livelihoods to the environmental cause, not in allowing more logging to occur on publicly held land. And not, he adds, "in frivolous lawsuits."