Forest Service Acknowledges Taking A Loss Environmentalists Say Agency Delayed Releasing Report Pending Logging Road Legislation

The Forest Service is acknowledging for the first time that taxpayers are losing money logging national forests.

A draft of a report due out next month says the government spent nearly $15 million more on logging operations than private timber companies paid to purchase the 3.7 million board feet of timber in fiscal 1996.

“For the first time since we have reported such information, expenditures for the program as a whole exceeded revenues … by some $14.7 million,” Robert Joslin, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said in a copy of the draft obtained Friday by The Associated Press and the Washington Post.

“This pattern can be expected to continue in the future as we place more and more emphasis on using timber sales as a management tool for achieving objectives other than fiber production,” he said.

Environmentalists charged that the agency actually reached the conclusion months ago but kept it secret while Congress debated and narrowly defeated proposals this fall to slow construction of logging roads.

“They’ve known this since March,” said Michael Francis, a former congressional aide now at The Wilderness Society. “They have been sitting on the numbers for their own political reasons.”

Forest Service officials denied that.

Environmentalists long have accused the Forest Service of using accounting tricks to hide the losses. For example, the Forest Service does not count as a cost the one-fourth of timber sale receipts that are returned to rural counties housing the forests. That amounted to $240 million in 1996.

And the Forest Service doesn’t count things like fire control or road maintenance.

Other government agencies and numerous environmental groups have long claimed that the government’s timber program is a money-loser for taxpayers. A 1995 report by the General Accounting Office showed accumulative losses to the Treasury of nearly $1 billion from 1992 to 1994. The Forest Service, however, has consistently shown a profit, in part because of accounting procedures that do not reflect revenue payments to states and other costs.

“The administration has taken a profitable program and made it unprofitable for the taxpayers,” said Frank Stewart, spokesman for the industry’s American Forest & Paper Association. He blamed it on “all the red tape this program has to go through.”

Mark Rey, majority staff member for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee on forests, said the Forest Service’s reported losses underscore the need for streamlining the government’s regulations. While private landowners can reap tidy profits from selling timber rights, the government must bear the cost of intensive environmental reviews as well as administrative and legal appeals that can delay harvesting for months or even years, he said.

“These numbers do not make a commentary on whether the federal government should be selling timber,” Rey said, “but rather they make a commentary on the efficiency with which the United States sells timber.”

Robert Wolf, a retired forester and Congressional Research staffer, takes issue with blaming appeals.

“Appeal costs have been down the last couple of years because the salvage rider prohibited them,” Wolf said. “And the GAO report showed that between 1992 and 1994, 47 of the national forests ate up all of the receipts even before counting congressional appropriations.

“How can it be appeals?”

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