Forest Service Accused of Hampering Probe

Watchdog Groups say Agency Tipped Weyerhaeuser

By Alan C. Miller, Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, March 25, 1996

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Forest Service obstructed an investigation into allegations that Weyerhaeuser Co. illegally harvested millions of dollars of timber from national forests in Oregon and Northern California, according to whistle-blowers and two watchdog groups.

Further, the groups contend, the Forest Service acquiesced in the harvesting and has failed to combat large-scale thefts in the nation's vast national forests.

And, they said, Forest Service officials warned Weyerhaeuser employees that they were the targets of the investigation and relayed confidential information about it.

The allegations are contained in a 24-page report produced by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Government Accountability Project. The first group is an association of state and federal resource-management and environmental employees. The second is a public-interest law firm that represents government whistle-blowers.

The report is based on interviews with 12 current and former Forest Service special agents and investigators as well as whistleblower complaints.

The groups represent six former members of a now-defunct federal task force created by the Forest Service in 1991 to investigate allegations of timber theft against some companies that hold contracts with the Forest Service. The task force was dismantled last year by Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas.

Seven of the timber task force members have filed whistle-blower complaints with the federal government against the Forest Service. They assert that they were harassed and that their jobs tracking the commercial theft of wood were eliminated because their disclosures embarrassed the agency.

Weyerhaeuser denies claims

The Forest Service has rejected such claims and has insisted that curtailing timber theft remains a priority.

No charges have ever been filed against Weyerhaeuser, and the company denies the groups' allegations.

Weyerhaeuser spokesman Frank Mendizabal said: "We operate this company in a legal manner at all times. Period."

Repeated attempts to obtain a response from Forest Service management were unsuccessful.

The report describes a major investigation that was begun in 1990 and picked up by the task force in 1991. The report does not specifically name Weyerhaeuser, but investigators say the Tacoma-based corporation was the primary target of the inquiry into about a dozen timber sales in four national forests between 1989 and 1994: the Klamath and Modoc in California and the Fremont and Winema in Oregon.

The Forest Service is responsible for ensuring that companies remove only the trees they are entitled to harvest and pay their full contracted value.

The allegations

The watchdog groups said agents, including two of the whistle-blowers, were investigating charges that Weyerhaeuser:

Illegally cut up to 32,000 healthy trees per month in a so-called salvage sale that limited the company to clearing only dead and diseased timber.

Defrauded the government by understating the amount of timber it had harvested.

Exported raw logs in violation of a law that requires federal timber be processed domestically before it is sent overseas.

The report claims the Forest Service:

Approved of the illegally cut healthy timber after investigators discovered it had been harvested in violation of the contract.

Erroneously recalculated the formula used to determine how much money Weyerhaeuser owed the government, benefiting the company to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Although it is difficult to document the extent of timber theft, estimates have ranged from an industry-backed annual figure of $10 million to $100 million or more.