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US Timber Loggers Sue Environmental Groups

Timber loggers in the US state of Minnesota are claiming $600,000 in damages against the US Forest Service and two environmental groups saying "deep ecology" is a religion. John Howard reports.

A group of loggers has filed a lawsuit claiming the US Forest Service has rolled-over to environmentalists belief's of "deep ecology" which regards the natural world as sacred.

They say that amounts to a religion which means the Forest Service has violated the Constitution's First Amendment prohibition on government favouring or endorsing one religion over another.

The loggers say environmentalists consistently claim the forests are cathedrals where nature can be worshipped so it becomes a religious issue about the seperation between church and state.

The lawsuit claims $600,000 in damages due to lost production and is also asking a federal judge to stop the environmentalists and the government from limiting access to timber unless it can be proved environmentalists are acting for non-religious reasons.

"It's ludicrous," said Ray Fenner, executive director of St. Paul-based Superior Wilderness Action Network, one of the groups being sued. The other is New Mexico-based Forest Guardians.

All three defendants have asked the court to dismiss the case as meritless. The central issue is whether "deep ecology" is religious.

"Of course not," said Michael Pinto, president of the Institute of Deep Ecology based in California. "Religion is faith-based, deep ecology is not," he said.

Pinto says the deep ecology beliefs are simply an insightful way of looking at the interconnectedness of human beings and nature.

But the loggers argue that is similar to American Indian religions that places nature at the centre of creation.

A University of Wisconsin professor of environmental studies, religion and earth ethics, Bron Taylor, said deep ecology could be considered a religion - if the court definition didn't require a belief in divine beings.

"Much environmentalism draws upon the idea that nature is sacred," says Taylor, who has written and taught extensively on the subject.

Loggers say environmentalists see and quote Mother Earth as a divine being to be worshipped in the forest cathedrals. That is religious, they say

Forest Guardians, who has wanted to end commercial logging in national forests, has challenged around 300 federal timber sales in the last three years and has won around 50. Superior Wilderness Action Network has filed 12 challenges but there has only been one outright victory.

To loggers even delays can mean a big financial loss, said Larry Jones, executive director of the Tower-based Associated Contract Loggers, a coalition of individual loggers and companies that filed the lawsuit.

"If I lose a month of production, that's 10 percent of my revenue," Jones said.

The court case could have far-reaching implications, said Michael Stokes Paulsen, a University of Minnesota law professor and national expert on law and religion.


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