Washington, DC, October 8, 2020 — After failing to produce a long-promised audit of losses from past timber sales in the Tongass National Forest, U.S. Forest Service now faces a federal lawsuit from Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) to force its release. The missing audit addresses a gaping hole in Forest Service ambitions to vastly expand Tongass timber operations.
The world’s largest temperate rainforest, Tongass stretches over the 500-mile-long Southeast Alaska Panhandle and is our largest national forest. The Trump administration is pursuing a full rollback of the Clinton-era “Roadless Rule” for the Tongass that would open more than half the forest (approximately 9.4 million acres) to logging and road building.
In 2017, PEER obtained an internal Forest Service “Washington Office Activity Review” that found staggering monetary losses in just two large Tongass timber sales, “close to 2 million” in one sale, or an amount “more than double the original stumpage.”
Stung by the embarrassing dimensions of these losses, in April 2018, Acting Deputy Chief Christopher French commissioned a full audit of Tongass timber operations. Despite public statements this fall by Forest Service officials that release was imminent, the audit report, its findings, and recommendations have not been released. Nor has the agency responded within statutory deadlines to a PEER Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of that audit.
“Before dramatically ramping up Tongass operations, the Forest Service should find out why it is losing its shirt on the current sales,” observed Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, pointing out that taxpayers have lost money on virtually every Tongass timber sale since the 1980s. “If your boat is badly leaking, going faster won’t prevent it from swamping.”
Apart from direct financial losses, consequences of mismanaged Tongass sales include –
- Ecological damage when required restoration and reforestation does not occur;
- Reduced contributions to Alaska’s Secure Rural Schools program which receives a portion of all Tongass timber sale proceeds to benefit local communities and schools; and
- Export of unfinished logs to China, bypassing local mills and failing to create promised new jobs.
“The Forest Service claims it wants to run more like a business and this audit will help ensure that its business model is not Enron or Blockbuster,” added Ruch. “Without this lawsuit, the Forest Service will continue treating this critical financial audit like Trump’s tax returns – repeatedly referenced but never disclosed.”