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Lawsuit Filed to Force USFS to Disclose the Fate of Promised Timber Reforms


July 01, 2017
Saturday PM

(SitNews) Washington, D.C. - The U.S. Forest Service has been unable to identify the safeguards it claims to have recently adopted to prevent wide-scale commercial timber theft and fraud, according to a lawsuit filed on June 29th by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  The Forest Service’s own internal reviews in 2016 point to systemic failures leading to multi-million dollar losses for taxpayers on the latest major timber sales it conducted on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.  

One 2016 “Washington Office Activity Review” uncovered by PEER found that two large Tongass commercial timber sales each racked up big monetary losses.  In addition, required inspections to prevent timber theft were bypassed. The review called for “an independent review” to “prevent similar issues in future timber and stewardship contracts” but according to PEER that recommendation appears to have been sidelined.

jpg Lawsuit Filed to Force USFS to Disclose the Fate of Promised Reforms

Located in Southeast Alaska, there are nearly 17 million acres in the Tongass National Forest.
Photo courtesy Audubon Alaska

The June 20, 2016 Forest Service “Washington Office Activity Review” examined two large Tongass timber sales and found:

  • Staggering monetary losses in each, “close to 2 million” in one sale, an amount “more than double the original stumpage” according to a post-harvest Monitoring Report. In the other sale, Forest Service maladministration led to “a reduction in sale value exceeding $1,700,000”;
  • Despite being stewardship sales to improve forest health, the agency allowed companies to ignore prescriptions by “favoring removal in the larger diameter, more valuable species groups, such as western red cedar and spruce” while significantly undercutting far less valuable hemlock; and
  • Required law enforcement timber theft prevention inspections appear to have been bypassed. Nor could the forest produce a written contract or other “pertinent documentation” for this high-volume sale. That sale also allowed “purchaser selection of trees without prior marking” and the forest’s only follow-on monitoring was completely “reliant on the purchaser’s own data.”

In response to PEER publicizing this internal review in early April 2017, the Forest Service released a statement to media outlets that the agency had already addressed concerns by adopting unspecified improvements in its timber sale administration.  As the agency refused to answer questions or grant interview requests, PEER promptly submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents detailing these claimed reforms, as well as for a copy of its press statement which was not posted on its website. 

Despite repeated inquiries over the ensuing months, the Forest Service produced nothing and on Thursday, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to compel release of the requested records.  

“The Forest Service’s reluctance to disclose these reforms suggests that its claims may have been cut out of whole cloth,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that employees are telling PEER that the agency has blocked any audits and has not changed its timber sale protocols. “Its own evaluations concede independent oversight on Forest Service timber sales is both sorely needed and long overdue.”

To that end, PEER asked the Inspector General for the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, to perform a “forensic audit” of recent sales to calculate total losses, as well as recommend steps to ensure future sales yield fair market value, as required.  In a May 3, 2017 letter back to PEER, Gil Harden, the Assistant Inspector General for Audit, wrote that “we do not have the resources available to initiate an audit on this issue at this time” but would “consider the topic in future audit planning cycles.”

PEER is also pressing the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry to address the need for outside audits when it considers the confirmation for Agriculture’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources & Environment, the presidential appointee who oversees the Forest Service.  Press reports indicate that that nomination is imminent. 

“If the Trump Organization ran its operations the way the Forest Service runs timber sales, Donald Trump would be ensconced in bankruptcy court and not the White House,” added Ruch. “It is hard to name a more basic duty for the Forest Service than preventing our national forests from being stolen.”

Under the Secure Rural Schools program, a portion of all Tongass timber sale proceeds go to local communities and schools. Depressed sale values therefore cost both the U.S. taxpayers and Alaskan schoolkids.

These were also stewardship sales using harvests to reach prescribed tree species cut criteria but they lacked any “defined process for independently confirming whether the criteria are being met. This obfuscates the acceptability of the end result.” Another issue the review identified was temporary timber roads improperly left open “for several years following commercial activity.”


On the Web:

Forest Service Timber Sale Review [pdf] June 2016

View the IG refusal to audit [PDF] May 2017

June 29, 2017 Lawsuit - Freedom of Information Complaint [PDF]


Editing by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


Source of News:

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER)



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