Environmentalists say it’s a scandal. Sen. Larry Craig calls it “bizarre.” The Agriculture Department still doesn’t know how it happened and the Forest Service isn’t talking.
The issue is a controversial letter a conservation group received from the USDA, denying a request for a change in the Forest Service rule that requires winning bidders on national-forest timber sales to actually cut the trees.
The Northwest Ecosystem Alliance of Bellingham and others want the rule changed so they can bid for the sales and save the trees instead of cutting them down.
The rejection letter two weeks ago appeared to come from James Lyons, agriculture undersecretary for natural resources and the environment - the USDA official who oversees the Forest Service.
Lyons says he reviewed a draft letter prepared by timber-sale officials at Forest Service headquarters.
But he says he never checked off on a final version and the May 4 letter should not have been sent. His signature was affixed by an auto-pen machine, Lyons said.
“I don’t know what the circumstances were that led to this unfortunate mistake, but I intend to get to the bottom of it,” he told The Associated Press on May 15.
Lyons still hasn’t figured out whether the mix-up was an oversight or something more sinister.
“It’s still under internal review as to exactly how that letter got out,” department spokesman Jim Petterson said Tuesday.
Lyons refused to characterize his position on the rule, but said the letter did not represent the department stance.
The agency still hasn’t made a decision, Petterson said.
Craig, R-Idaho, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forestry, is among those waiting to hear how and why the letter was sent without Lyons’ approval.
“Like any good mystery, the bizarre stories about timber-sale contract procedures emanating from the Office of the Undersecretary … has captured my attention,” the senator said in a May 23 letter to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.
Environmentalists suspect agency officials who oppose the rule change sent the letter prematurely in an attempt to sway a decision in their favor - or at least to embarrass anti-logging forces in the Clinton administration.
“A spider on the wall knows whether it was an accident or a scandal,” said Mitch Friedman, executive director of the alliance.
“I think the Forest Service hard liners did this intentionally,” he said from Bellingham, about 80 miles north of Seattle.
Among other things, the letter said Lyons was rejecting the request to legalize “non-harvesting bids” in part because it would waste money spent to study the environmental impacts of proposed logging.
“It would be a wasteful use of public monies and contrary to the public interest to make such a substantial investment, only to later decide at the bidding stage not to proceed with the project,” the letter said.
Friedman said he has talked to Lyons since receiving the letter and is convinced Lyons didn’t write it or intend for it to stand as the official response to the petition.
He said he believes agency hardliners “intervened to prevent the administration from liberalizing their conservation policies and used this false decision as a platform for their position.”
That view is shared by Jeff DeBonis, a former Forest Service worker who now is executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Ethics, an advocacy group for federal workers.
“I believe Lyons is telling the truth and the letter wasn’t supposed to go out,” DeBonis said. “It is not an unusual thing for the old guard to counter the new leaders.”
Forest Service spokesman Chris Holmes said Tuesday the agency has no comment on the letter pending an in-house effort to determine how it got sent.
In his letter to Glickman, Craig said the department was wasting its time considering the environmentalists’ request.
Allowing winning bidders to forgo logging of timber sales “would violate several provisions of federal forestry laws,” he said.
“Simply stated, the secretary cannot legally make the regulation changes requested,” Craig wrote.
The National Forest Management Act outlines contract terms and conditions to “promote the orderly harvesting” of timber, the senator said. He also cited the Organic Act of 1897 as evidence that national forests are to be used to “furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States.
“The clear congressional intent behind that law and subsequent laws like the NMFA is to insure some level of timber production from national forest lands,” Craig wrote.
“It is a violation of the law and regulations to then allow this land to be snatched away for some other purpose not provided for in the contract.”
Friedman said numerous media outlets have followed the proposed rule change since his group made the winning bid but was denied the right to purchase a grove of trees on the Okanogan National Forest for $28,750.
The Southwest Center for Biodiversity, a Tucson-based group that unsuccessfully bid on two federal timber sales last year in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Oregon Natural Resources Council joined the National Ecosystem Alliance in asking the agency to allow such bids.
“Every reporter who called Lyons got open-minded quotes. When they talked to the Forest Service, they got antagonistic quotes,” Friedman said.
“The bottom line is the Forest Service is incapable of considering that a conservation bid could be in the best interest of the American public, because the Forest Service views its mission as delivering logs to the timber industry regardless of the cost to the environment or the treasury,” he said.
“That difference in perspective between the Forest Service and the administration has led to this conflict.”