While it's hardly fair to lump a group of environmental saboteurs in with the likes of Osama bin Laden, a federal judge in Eugene was right in deciding that at least some of the arsons committed in the name of protecting nature were acts of terrorism.

While it's hardly fair to lump a group of environmental saboteurs in with the likes of Osama bin Laden, a federal judge in Eugene was right in deciding that at least some of the arsons committed in the name of protecting nature were acts of terrorism.

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled Wednesday that three of four acts of sabotage committed by a member of a radical environmental group qualified as terrorism because they were intended to punish the government or to prompt a change in government policy.

Aiken's decision resulted in a longer prison term for Stanislas Meyerhoff, who was sentenced to 13 years for setting fires at a police station, an SUV dealer and a tree farm. He was the first to be sentenced among the 10 members of the Earth Liberation Front, who were earlier convicted in connection with 20 fires set over a five-year period that caused $40 million in damage. Jonathan Paul of the Greensprings and Suzanne Savoie, a former Applegate resident, are scheduled to be sentenced within weeks.

It's unfortunate there's not another classification, because it's a reach to tag the ELF members with the same label applied to the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. While their acts were crimes and deserve stiff punishment, the ELF members went out of their way to ensure no one was in harm's way. The 9/11 terrorists and those operating in Iraq approached their cowardly missions with the opposite intention in mind: They wanted to inflict the most human carnage possible.

Nevertheless, the ELF attacks were cowardly deeds in their own right, intended to do damage to our government and to create a climate of fear that would lead to policy changes.

Aiken said that in three of four cases against Meyerhoff, he was acting against the government or attempting to change policy. That, she said, qualified the acts as terrorism.

Her method of defining terrorism seems like a reasonable line to draw. If an angry customer burns a neighbor's fence because it blocks his view, that's felony arson. If an environmental activist sets fire to a tree farm in order to affect pending legislation, that's terrorism. Both are serious crimes, but the latter strikes at the very heart of a democratic system.

Before his sentencing, Meyerhoff apologized profusely and said he now realizes his acts did not further his cause. That's true; the only effect the arsons had on the public was to damage the reputation of members of the environmental movement, the vast majority of whom continue to work within the system to make change.

Our democracy is a fragile thing, held together by a belief in the common good. In agreeing to be citizens of a democratic country, we recognize that decisions made by the majority and by the government will not always go our way. But we also recognize that the same democracy gives us the opportunity to press our case through the public, through governing bodies and through the courts.

The other option is anarchy. That path leads to the death of democracy.