For years, the government suspected that large amounts of timber were being stolen from the national forests of the Pacific Northwest, costing the U.S. Treasury tens of millions of dollars.
In 1991, a federal task force was created within the U.S. Forest Service to stop the biggest thieves - believed to be lumber companies taking far more and better trees than they had paid for.
But nearly four years later, the effort is in disarray. After bringing forth the biggest timber-theft case in U.S. history in 1993, the unit has not produced a single prosecution in more than a year, and many members now are examining another alleged culprit - their own agency, the government’s caretaker of the valuable timber.
In internal complaints being investigated by the Agriculture Department’s inspector general, a majority of task force members charge that Forest Service officials deliberately are ignoring pervasive thefts and are trying to prevent investigators from uncovering them.
In formal allegations not yet made public, they describe systematic attempts by agency officials to sidetrack cases, as well as harassment of task force investigators.
“Our crackdown has drawn a powerful backlash from entrenched agency officials on whose watch timber theft has reeled out of control,” 10 of the 17 Timber Theft Investigative Branch members said in a Sept. 9 letter to Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas. They claimed they have been hamstrung by “agency management that winked at industry misconduct and blackened the eyes of agents who did not wink with them.”
The charges are causing a furor inside the Forest Service, where officials contend the agency is strongly committed to fighting timber theft. Lowell Mansfield, who headed the task force, says the complaints reflect personal grievances by the investigators. The department wants the investigators to combat timber theft nationwide, Mansfield said, while they want to stay in southern Oregon, near their homes and families.
The complaint is “a bunch of baloney,” Mansfield said.
The task force was created after Congress concluded companies were cutting more trees - and more highly valued trees - than they had paid for, shortchanging the government by millions.
The biggest theft case of all - and the largest of its kind in the nation’s history - involved the Columbia River Log Scaling and Grading Bureau, which was hired by two Oregon timber companies to measure and grade the logs they had harvested. The task force found the scaling bureau was declaring high-quality logs defective or worthless, thereby robbing the government of millions of dollars. The case has led to $3.2 million in fines and restitution.
Then, in 1993, Mansfield, a 28-year agency veteran, was appointed to temporarily head the task force. He was joined by a deputy, Richard Grandalski. Both men were regarded by task force members as part of the agency’s Old Guard.
Task force members decline to discuss the conflict while the complaint is pending, but the letter to Thomas charges that the managers tried to blunt their efforts on a number of fronts.
The supervisors moved to make them consultants to regional Forest Service offices, thus removing their investigative authority, the agents said. They allegedly sat on “close to 60 identified timber thefts in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska” through bureaucratic stonewalling. And they targeted agents with harassment, from opening audits of travel expenses to showing “personal disrespect (and) abuse over gender, personality traits and investigative style,” the letter says.