Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

U.S. Forest Agents Bark Up Own Tree in Theft Inquiries

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

U.S. Forest Agents Bark Up Own Tree in Theft Inquiries

Article excerpt

The U.S. Forest Service is covering up lumber companies' thefts of Uncle Sam's trees.

That, in a nutshell, is the complaint by members of a watchdog task force named several years ago to check out rumors that lumber companies operating on federal land were cutting more timber than they were paying for.

For years the government suspected that timber was being stolen from the vast national forests of the Pacific Northwest, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars to U.S. taxpayers.

In 1991, a special federal task force was set up within the U.S. Forest Service to investigate and help prosecute the biggest thieves, believed to be lumber companies taking far more - and better - trees than they were paying for.

But nearly four years later, the investigation has shifted its focus. After bringing forth the biggest timber-theft case in U.S. history in 1993, the special unit has not produced a single prosecution in more than a year, and many members are now directing their attention toward the U.S. Forest Service itself.

In complaints being investigated by the Agriculture Department's inspector general, 12 of the 17 task force members have charged that Forest Service officials are deliberately ignoring pervasive thefts in the government preserves and are trying to prevent investigators from uncovering them.

The complaint spells out what the task force members say are systematic attempts by agency officials to sidetrack cases, and efforts by officials to intimidate task force investigators.

"Our crackdown has drawn a powerful backlash from entrenched agency officials on whose watch timber theft has reeled out of control," task force members said Sept. 9 in a letter to Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas.

They claimed that they had been hamstrung by "agency management that winked at industry misconduct and blackened the eyes of agents who did not wink with them."

But Lowell Mansfield, who headed the task force, called the charges "a bunch of baloney." He said that the complaints reflected personal grievances by the investigators. The department wants the investigators to combat timber theft nationwide, Mansfield said, whereas they want to stay solely in southern Oregon, near their homes and families. …

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