Allegation of illegal logging, and a cover-up, on the Tongass National Forest

Old-growth forest clearcutting was ongoing last summer on the Tongass National Forest’s Big Thorne timber sale on Prince of Wales Island. Photo by Jacob Ritley, as part of the Tongass Groundtruth Expedition, 2016.

The following commentary is from David Beebe, a regular commenter on this blog, who also happens to be a resident and commercial fisherman in southeast Alaska for the past 30 years. These timber sales, specifically the Big Thorne timber sale, have been discussed on this blog numerous times in the past.

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” We’re all familiar with this thought experiment in observation and perception.

So what if an investigation by the Washington Office (WO) of the US Forest Service visits the Petersburg, and Thorne Bay Ranger Districts reviewing the Tonka and Big Thorne timber sales, and they conclude in a report never intended to be made public, that thousands of trees fell in our public forest illegally? Does it make a sound in local newsprint when finally revealed? Not a peep was heard from the Petersburg Pilot on what would surely merit the highest level of local, and regional if not national newsworthiness.

Does the loss of millions of dollars in revenues to the communities of Petersburg and Thorne Bay make a sound on local public radio? Well, no. Although there were two CoastAlaska news reports, the first one misleadingly claimed the agency findings of fact were merely accusations by an environmental group regarding “mishandled timber sales.” The title of the second news report would have us believe the Big Thorne timber Sale was “short on timber,” and simply “a mistake.” At no time was the Tonka timber sale out of Petersburg ever mentioned in either of these stories.

A timber sale requires a contract which once signed, is a binding legal agreement enforceable by law. The WO investigation team determined the contract was neither enforced, nor could a valid copy be provided upon request. But that’s not all. Many more records necessary to assure proper oversight of millions of dollars in public resources were also found— to not exist.

There’s one of two possibilities here. Either public records exist, records necessary to assure the public that laws were followed — including the prevention of timber theft — or those records were destroyed to protect the perpetrators.

These systematic failures to comply with law on two different ranger districts in two separate timber sales can hardly be a “mistake.” The WO findings of monetary losses to municipalities were raised during a recent open house on the central Tongass planning to Tongass Forest supervisor, Earl Stewart. Stewart tried to dodge the question, was heckled, but still feigned ignorance of the WO findings of fact. This exchange was omitted from CoastAlaska’s news coverage of the meeting. Large-scale timber theft on the Tongass has been well documented in a white paper published in 1996. 20 years later, all the carefully designed agency methods to assure that this doesn’t happen again were systematically ignored in the Petersburg and Thorne Bay Ranger districts.

So either there is a system of gross maladministration, mismanagement and incompetence on the Petersburg and Thorne Bay Ranger Districts, or there exists a conspiracy of willful disregard of agency protocols, public trust, and public laws.

As Ani Difranco has noted, freedom of the press is meaningless if the press refuses to ask questions. News production is often referred to as the first draft of history, and this astonishing investigation revealing millions of dollars of taxpayer losses to the Petersburg borough and the community of Thorne Bay never made the local news roundup of 2017.

This April 4th will mark a full year since the public was first alerted to this Washington Office investigation, and it is time to hold accountable, not only the agency perpetrators, but the gatekeepers of local news.

A forensic accounting of this matter is essential.

David Beebe has been a Southeast Alaska resident and commercial fisherman for over 3 decades, During that time, he has closely followed issues related to environmental, social and economic policy, and has served on several non-profit boards, and council seats.

16 thoughts on “Allegation of illegal logging, and a cover-up, on the Tongass National Forest”

  1. I humbly submit prima facie evidence to resident commenting NCFP denialists of the present state of regulatory capture of USDA/USFS (among a myriad of other agencies), in Washington DC.

    There exists however, a predicament of democratic process unique to rural communities, of suffering an insufficient “consumer base” upon which to then have access to, (reflecting an exquisite dependence upon) , local nonprofit news providers — to actually inform the resident electorate, and enter the next gate of newsworthiness.

    That the USFS is a captured agency according to the definition of Wiki (and a definition by which many others agree upon), I invite your further remonstrations of denialism.

    Reply
      • Jeez, Larry, you’d think a seasoned timber sale contractor and cruiser such as yourself would have a substantive comment about these allegations and documents. * smirk *

        Reply
        • I made my comments about it before. Do we really need Beebe’s ravings about a “captured Agency”, yet again?!?!? How come there are no news outlets reporting the imminent clearcutting of Giant Sequoias??? How come no news outlets are talking about the imminent sale of former National Monument lands in Utah??? Surely, the news would feature such articles nationwide on the front page, if those accusations were true, wouldn’t they??? Are those news outlets a “captured Agency”, too???

          Reply
  2. Apparently not uncommon.

    http://www.counton2.com/news/call-collett-tons-of-trees-cut-illegally-on-public-lands-represents-loss-of-government-revenue/1031563768

    “A News 2 investigation uncovers  government employees falsified reports and failed to follow through on inspections leading to tons of trees being cut down and removed from the Francis Marion National Forest. The theft of these trees represented untold amount of money lost by the government.”

    “Once the internal investigation began, investigators noted documents started disappearing. Ultimately the investigation found the contracts between the Forest Service and the loggers weren’t being enforced, and hundreds of trees were being harvested without being paid for.”

    Reply
  3. Sounds like people were doing bad things.. and were punished:

    “Following the investigation, more revenue was delayed as timber harvests were stopped to reevaluate the program and hire new staff. Logging has only recently resumed.

    The forest service declined an interview but told me in a statement:

    “The staff involved in the timber program are almost entirely new since the time of this investigation. The District Ranger and staff are committed to implementing the new Forest Plan.”

    Investigators found there wasn’t enough evidence to support criminal charges, but the Forest Service spokesperson told News 2 employees involved in the timber program were held accountable internally. Liquidated damages and road maintenance deposits were also assessed, billed, and one logger paid roughly in $11,000 fines.”

    Reply
    • As chief agency loyalist, and apologist here, there are several troubling aspects of the pattern of your rationalizations Sharon, not the least of which is your apparent indifference to the implications of systemic practices of grand theft of public resources by the USFS — whether in Alaska or South Carolina.

      Where does your moral compass point, or is this why ethics should be regarded as bad manners and irrelevant to these discussions on NCFP?

      There’s no reason for you or Larry to acknowledge how the news media and the agency in Alaska covered up millions of dollars of losses to the public? Might this be precisely how, and why, we don’t hear about this longstanding criminality more often?

      And when news media actually seek the truth on behalf of the public interest, your review amounts to shrugging off a few bad agency apples in SC — the same perpetrators who when realizing an investigation was occurring, destroyed evidence of their wrongdoing?!

      What (if any) of these criminal acts of destruction of public records and incriminating evidence resulted in personal or professional accountability of agency perpetrators? Are you seriously suggesting its all good cuz agency “employees…were held accountable “internally”?

      How is it that anywhere else in society employees caught destroying evidence and colluding in organized crime resulting in millions of dollars of losses to the public — would face the external branches of our government’s executive enforcement division and judicial systems of justice?

      So, it’s all good that they just slapped an $11,000 fine on a single industry perpetrator for crimes occurring over several years by several operators?

      How about the unquantified losses to present and future public owners of our National Forest System?

      My comments on NCFP are founded upon this undeniable, vast moral chasm between you, Larry (Fotoware), and other commenting agency apologists. Their silences of outrage speak volumes on criminality which has been normalized, and incorporated into the “Family” history.

      1) This evidence and investigation was only revealed by an adequately funded and enabled journalist informed by a whistleblower empowered by ethics. Ethics is a rare credential these days fundamental to professional credibility, and unfortunately, a significant percentage of the electorate agree that most of the news media operate with suspect agendas. The public confidence in government and elected representatives is at an all-time low, and you’re on record mocking my concerns for the evidence of corporatocracy the majority of the electorate also agrees exists.

      2) $11,000 in fines to one logger fails the test of the definition of “disincentive” and not commensurate to the scale of public losses. Such a fine is easily accommodated as the “cost of doing business” with gross receipts of stolen timber exceeding 7 figures.

      3) Qui bono? (who benefits?) We cannot know the full scale or specific beneficiaries, because frankly, agency collaboration with industry criminal wrongdoing is a growth industry, and there exists no enforcement, no accountability, and therefore no basis of agency legitimacy.

      Why do these questions and concerns not matter to you Sharon?

      Reply
      • You might want to re-read my opinion on this issue, instead of your incessant attacks on the characters of an entire Agency. Making assumptions is not a good way to make your point (as I have pointed out to you multiple times).

        Reply
      • David.. I think being an Old Person who has worked in Three Regions may explain the way I think.
        Here’s some of the history of Law Enforcement in the FS (until I looked this up to check my personal recollection, I didn’t realize that marijuana was such a part of the history!) http://www.landmanagementle.com/le/usfs.cfm

        ” The organization issue would go external just a few months later when a Report to the House Committee on Appropriations on Timber Theft in the Pacific Northwest Region was made in December 1988. Unlike in the above so called “cross section consensus,” the House Surveys and Investigations staff studied the timber theft issue in detail and freely made contact with field level Forest Service special agents and law enforcement officers. The timber theft problem as it related to Forest Service timber sales contracting is quite complicated. The report examined years of data and information on the issue and it seemed that when timber purchasers took actions that constituted acts of “theft” there was sort of a look the other way attitude. Or if the timber purchaser was caught, it would be resolved by amending the contract and/or the making of administrative demands for damages under trespass procedures. These sorts of methods run very contrary to well established principles on theft of government property in the Federal justice system. Theft of any government property worth more than $1,000 is a felony crime. Another Federal statute called “misprision of a felony” makes it a felony crime for any person who knows of a felony offense and does not report it to the U.S. Attorney. Because the monetary values of timber are so high, the combination of these statutes makes any timber theft a criminal matter that should be investigated by the special agents and referred to the U.S. Attorney either for prosecution or declination.

        The timber theft report identified 6 timber theft cases with values up to $8.9 million that had been tried in the courts. Another 15 cases were under investigation. The report identified a number of illegal logging methods commonly used by timber purchasers so that “timber sales contracts would be considered a ‘license to steal.’ ” The report included lengthy discussions of specific cases of timber theft. One Assistant U.S. Attorney said that the “system is very vulnerable to theft and that bogus activities are commonplace in a system that is extremely vulnerable.” But counter to this, the report stated that “There is a general belief among FS employees that theft is not a problem.”

        The survey and investigation staff had discovered the report released earlier in that year by the Agriculture Department OIG that had recommended that the Forest Service re-organize their special agents to be “organizationally independent.” The Forest Service had shoved this recommendation aside because they believed the PCIE standards were only guidelines and there were no specific cases where Forest Service line officers had interfered with criminal investigation. However, the survey and investigation staff had identified a case on the Olympic National Forest where the District Ranger and the Forest Supervisor had removed a special agent from two investigations and refused to let him investigate a third. Many of the Forest Service law enforcement officers said that too often “irregularities” in timber contracts are handled through the contract or in civil court proceedings rather than through criminal investigation. The law enforcement officers were supportive of changing to a “stove-pipe” management system for law enforcement that would be a totally separate entity from “line officers.” They proposed that such a system should have the head of law enforcement reporting directly to the Chief or Deputy Chief of the Forest Service.”

        So now there is a stove-piped organization.. and there are still problems.. are these widespread? We don’t know. We do know that the most obvious organizational solution has been done.

        So it’s “better than it was, but not as good as it could be”. Just so you know, I am against people doing things that are wrong. Where you and I disagree is that you see it as (x happens therefore the Agency is captured) and I see it as (x happens therefore previous (extreme, stovepiping was pretty extreme) efforts to fix it haven’t worked 100%).

        As to my ethics, I guess we will continue to disagree :).

        Reply
  4. Someone has a record of what was harvested. I wonder how the timber was to be paid for? Was this a lump sum sale? I doubt that all timber operators on the Tongass are thieves.
    I latest news about the Checto Bar fire is that they are going to salvage harvest 165 acres out of 190,000 that burned. Who has captured this FS agency?

    Reply
    • I guessing that your use of statistics here is a bit off base. The viability of salvage logging depends on many factors. Two factors are whether or not roading costs prove prohibitive, and whether or not there is any commercial value in the timber. My guess is that those two factors alone represent the major reasons for such a small % of acres salvaged. To suggest that this is somehow related to “agency capture” by the enviros, would be therefore at best a very big stretch. Maybe you should have included a “smirk.”

      Reply
      • “Someone has a record of what was harvested.”

        Not in the agency, and not if they were destroyed, and deleted off the o-drive. The agency track record for whistleblower retaliation, the failures to hold accountable high level line officers overseeing coverup, eliminating gates, not enforcing NEPA, …etc.etc.

        If two timber sales on two different ranger districts were investigated and both exhibited stark evidence, I’d call that statistically significant.

        If it quacks, walks and looks like R10 capture, and all the enforcement and independent investigations necessary to prevent capture have been subverted, the evidence supports capture, and the burden of proof quacks far more effectively than agency denialists.

        Reply
  5. Half the timber in an oldgrowth sale in the Tongass is pulp. As the greenies were a major factor in the end of our pulp mills in Sitka and Ketchikan and no viable solution was presented(think biofuel energy generation) there is no profitable way to process the pulp wood. You now have only half of the wood left that is worth a shit for lumber and even the high dollar music wood utilizes a third of the log it is processed from culling out and leaving behind the rest of the log. All I hear from the Ike’s of Bebe,knight, Sebastian and the others, are antilogging protests. Were are the solutions to keep our multiple use forests accessible to all. Oh they aren’t interested in multi use. They want it all. One third of the entire Alexander Arcipelligo is already protected as wilderness or monument. Were is consideration for the other USERS? Of the other two thirds only one third is forested with merchantable timber. At one time logging timber tax paid for our schools and roads enough to keep them all maintained it is now replaced be community development monies from the Feds which may now be on the chopping block. The environmental groups file MULTIPAL suits against every logging proposal and tie it up in expensive litigation at some point they need to be held accountable for the monies they have taken away from the very coffers used to maintain the roads and communities. If not for the continued battles with environmentalists it would attract interested parties to consider building a new pulp mill in south east. There are new techniques that are more environmentally freindly and very expensive. At that point virtually all of the timber harvested would be economically harvestable, solving the issue of the forest service losing money. By the way in my opinion the government is not suppose to show a profit. That’s socialism and communism. Look up UN agenda 21, and UN agenda 2030 if you want to see the forces behind this mess.

    Reply
    • The pulp mills in Southeast Alaska were never economically viable without massive taxpayer subsidies – namely, the timber companies were paying essentially nothing for the trees. Not even “market value,” let alone what it cost the Forest Service to administer the sales. There’s now statute law (the Tongass Timber Reform Act) that says we can’t do that anymore even if we had the money (which we don’t). Good luck repealing it.

      Even then, the mills were never profitable. Don’t believe me? Read the court decision in APC vs. United States: https://www.cofc.uscourts.gov/sites/default/files/opinions/Alaska%20Opinion.pdf. APC out of Sitka lost hundreds of millions of dollars over its operating life – the only thing that kept it afloat was a bunch of zero-interest loans from the Japanese government.

      There never was a “real” pulp industry in Southeast Alaska. It was a taxpayer-subsidized illusion.

      Reply

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