May 12, 1997 in Nation/World

Furtive Log Plan Uncovered Timber Firm, Forest Service Kept Old-Growth Surveys From Public

Scott Sonner Associated Press
 

Combing through 11,000 pages of court documents, environmentalists trying to stop logging of centuries-old trees in the Snake River basin have found old-growth surveys they had been told did not exist.

They also found a letter from Boise Cascade Corp., one of the biggest timber companies in the region, that they think explains why the U.S. Forest Service denied their Freedom of Information Act request for the surveys two years ago.

“We respectfully request that documents and information concerning this timber sale not be released to anybody under the Freedom of Information Act or any other laws that appear to require release,” Robert W. Crawford, Boise Cascade’s regional logging manager, said in the April 24, 1995, letter to the Forest Service.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” said Tom Woodbury, an attorney for the Idaho Sporting Congress, one of the plaintiffs in a U.S. District Court lawsuit challenging the logging.

“It smacks of criminal conspiracy between Boise Cascade and the Forest Service to defraud the public,” he said.

Officials for Boise Cascade have denied any wrongdoing. They say the request to keep their logging plan secret was prompted by concerns that eco-terrorists would use the information to locate and sabotage their contractors’ equipment.

“At the time, there had been a lot of activity, a lot of damage done to equipment by activists. We had some real concerns,” company spokesman Doug Bartels said last week from headquarters in Boise.

Forest Service officials said Boise Cascade’s letter had no bearing on their response to the Freedom of Information Act requests for data on the logging planned in the Payette National Forest on the east side of Hells Canyon near the Idaho-Oregon border.

“Anybody can send a letter, but it has no influence on the releasing of FOIA information,” said Miera Crawford, Forest Service spokeswoman for the Payette forest and no relation to Robert Crawford at Boise Cascade.

Nevertheless, in responding to Freedom of Information Act requests in the months after Boise Cascade’s letter, the Forest Service twice denied it had the old-growth surveys that conservationists were seeking.

“There are no records available,” Forest Service regional boss Dale Bosworth of Ogden, Utah, wrote on June 20, 1995.

Several “old-growth data sheets” were found among material the agency turned over to U.S. District Judge Mikel Williams in Boise. The papers document the number of trees larger than 21 inches in circumference as well as areas with multiple canopy levels, maximum crown closures and other characteristics of old growth. Some of the trees are more than three centuries old.

“From what we’ve seen, this stand appears to be entirely old growth from end to end,” one Forest Service surveyor wrote on a data sheet on July 23, 1992, for part of a timber sale on Idaho’s Cuddy Mountain.

None of the old-growth data now emerging was included in the Forest Service’s formal environmental impact statement for the proposed logging and road-building over an area larger than a square mile.

“We caught them lying. They had these documents all along,” said Ron Mitchell, executive director of the Idaho Sporting Congress based in Boise.

A copy of the Boise Cascade letter obtained by The Associated Press shows Robert Crawford made the unusual request regarding Freedom of Information Act documents to David Mathis, the Forest Service’s contracting officer for the Payette National Forest in McCall, Idaho.

“This sale has had considerable controversy and it is very possible that problems may arise causing delays in our operations and/or damage to our contractors’ equipment which could make it difficult to fulfill our contractual obligations,” Crawford wrote in April 1995.

“If a particular situation arises where the Forest Service believes this information must be released, we request prior notice so that we may take appropriate action,” he wrote.

Miera Crawford said it isn’t clear why the old-growth data sheets weren’t released in response to earlier requests.

“It could have been that they didn’t know about them. I can only think it was an oversight,” she said.

Boise Cascade’s request was the only one of its kind, to her knowledge, “but I can understand where they were coming from,” she said.

“About 100 miles up the road, there was environmental terrorism going on. There were some arrests made.”

Boise Cascade paid $9 million in August 1994 for rights to the Grade-Dukes timber sale, which includes about 18 million board feet of timber and about 18 miles of new logging roads. It is the largest timber sale currently planned in the Payette forest northwest of Boise.

The Idaho Sporting Congress filed suit to challenge the logging plans in December, citing earlier warnings by biologists at the Forest Service and Idaho Fish and Game Department that the timber harvests would harm two species of owls, the pileated woodpecker, northern goshawk and redband trout.

Woodbury, of the Idaho Sporting Congress, brought the Boise Cascade letter up in court during a hearing on the lawsuit last month. Williams could make a decision this month on whether to block the logging.

Marc Haws, civil chief for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boise and the attorney representing the Forest Service in the case, said last week he has not seen the letter.

It came up in court “as sort of a last-minute deal that never was part of the pleadings,” he said.

“I would strongly contend there was no animosity, hostility or recalcitrance on the part of the Forest Service in its response,” Haws said.

The Forest Service regional office in Ogden, where the Freedom of Information Act request was sent, “did not have the data,” he said.

“We are talking about thousands and thousands of documents,” Haws said. “If a particular office doesn’t have the information and doesn’t believe the information exists, that is not a formal denial under FOIA. It wouldn’t be a violation of the law.”

At Boise Cascade, Bartels said last week the company’s request for protection against certain Freedom of Information Act disclosures “certainly was not out of line.

“What it boils down to is we prefer not to publicize our logging schedule simply for the security of the equipment,” he said.

Furthermore, Bartels said, Boise Cascade lawyer William R. VanHole had written to Idaho Sporting Congress attorney D. Bernard Zaleha on April 21, 1995 - three days before the letter to the Forest Service - notifying the group, “as a courtesy, … that Boise Cascade expects to move forward in the near future” with the logging contract.

“We told them we would be proceeding and if they had any questions to contact us,” Bartels said. “They never did. Then they come back 20 months later and file litigation after the road work was done.”

Erik Ryberg of the Ecology Center in McCall filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Forest Service on May 12, 1995, seeking maps and surveys of old growth throughout the western half of the Payette National Forest.

After the agency rejected the request in June, Ryberg wrote thenForest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas on June 26, 1995, saying the responses he had received “simply defy credulity.”

Agency officials claim “they do not map the stands they visit, they do not map the stands that meet old-growth requirements and they do not write down the results of their findings anywhere,” Ryberg said.

“Clearly, some sort of written and mapped record of this process must exist. People do not go out in the forest and keep this information in their heads,” he said.

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