Washington, DC June 29, 2017 – The U.S. Forest Service has been unable to identify the safeguards it claims to have recently adopted to prevent wide-scale commercial timber theft and fraud, according to a lawsuit filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The Forest Service’s own internal reviews point to systemic failures leading to multi-million dollar losses for taxpayers on the latest major timber sales it conducted on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.
One 2016 “Washington Office Activity Review” uncovered by PEER found that two large Tongass commercial timber sales each racked up big monetary losses. In addition, required inspections to prevent timber theft were bypassed. The review called for “an independent review” to “prevent similar issues in future timber and stewardship contracts” but that recommendation appears to have been sidelined.
In response to PEER publicizing this internal review in early April, the Forest Service released a statement to media outlets that the agency had already addressed concerns by adopting unspecified improvements in its timber sale administration. As the agency refused to answer questions or grant interview requests, PEER promptly submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for documents detailing these claimed reforms, as well as for a copy of its press statement which was not posted on its website.
Despite repeated inquiries over the ensuing months, the agency produced nothing. Today, PEER filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to compel release of the requested records.
“The Forest Service’s reluctance to disclose these reforms suggests that its claims may have been cut out of whole cloth,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that employees are telling PEER that the agency has blocked any audits and has not changed its timber sale protocols. “Its own evaluations concede independent oversight on Forest Service timber sales is both sorely needed and long overdue.”
To that end, PEER asked the Inspector General for the Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service’s parent agency, to perform a “forensic audit” of recent sales to calculate total losses, as well as recommend steps to ensure future sales yield fair market value, as required. In a May 3, 2017 letter back to PEER, Gil Harden, the Assistant Inspector General for Audit, wrote that “we do not have the resources available to initiate an audit on this issue at this time” but would “consider the topic in future audit planning cycles.”
PEER is also pressing the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition & Forestry to address the need for outside audits when it considers the confirmation for Agriculture’s Undersecretary for Natural Resources & Environment, the presidential appointee who oversees the Forest Service. Press reports indicate that that nomination is imminent.
“If the Trump Organization ran its operations the way the Forest Service runs timber sales, Donald Trump would be ensconced in bankruptcy court and not the White House,” added Ruch. “It is hard to name a more basic duty for the Forest Service than preventing our national forests from being stolen.”