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Forest Informers Go Out on a Limb Over Tree Theft

May 18, 2003|Martha Mendoza | Associated Press Writer

PORTLAND, Ore. — Five U.S. Forest Service whistleblowers who claim that their timber-theft unit was abolished to protect lumber companies from prosecution will make their case at a hearing in June.

A federal administrative law judge at the Merit Systems Protection Board will hear the case, in which the former timber-theft unit members charge that their 16-member division was abolished in the spring of 1995 after they began investigating alleged Forest Service cover-ups of corporate timber theft.

They contend that companies -- in projects condoned by the Forest Service -- were clear-cutting healthy, old-growth trees under the pretext of salvage programs intended to thin out diseased or dead timber.

The group members, represented by the Government Accountability Project, a Washington, D.C.-based whistleblower protection organization, allege that the Forest Service prevented them from doing their job, ordered them to relocate and sometimes harassed them.

The Forest Service, which is fighting the allegations, has maintained for seven years that the unit was eliminated because it wasn't the most efficient way to protect trees from theft.

It was replaced with a "fully integrated approach" that made timber theft enforcement the responsibility of every Forest Service employee, not just law enforcement, according to Ann Melle, assistant director of the Forest Service's law enforcement unit.

Law enforcement officers now sit in on timber harvest planning meetings and review contracts. Each year, a few lumber companies are permanently barred from bidding on contracts because their cutting exceeded authorized boundaries or because they misstated the size or value of harvests.

But that's not enough, former task force members and environmental watchdogs say.

"The big theft is occurring not with a chain saw but with a pencil," said Jim Keefer, a retired Forest Service employee who served on the task force. However, those alleging the cover-up have so far offered no specific examples of wrongdoing.

Keefer and other former members -- who are pushing for the task force's resurrection -- describe the unit, established by Congress in 1991, as an elite strike force. It was created to investigate criminal theft of trees by the timber industry and fraudulent underpayments estimated at up to $100 million annually for lawful harvests. They were part of a larger Forest Service effort to stop all types of timber theft -- and other crimes -- in national forests nationwide.

The task force worked in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, and had a budget that reached about $3.4 million a year. It was bringing in about that much in fines, restitution and civil recovery, almost entirely from lumber companies, including a $3.2-million case against the Columbia River Scaling Bureau in 1993.

"The federal government shifted from enforcing environmental laws against massive corporations clear-cutting the forests and instead chose to concentrate on people cutting firewood or Christmas trees," said Tom Devine, the whistleblowers' lawyer.

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