Thursday, December 29, 2005

Bush logging

A Timeline of the Bush Administration's Pro-Logging Policies

Contrast this with evidence coming out of a trial in Portland, Oregon, concerning timber theft on a massive scale. According to internal documents from the US Forest Service, more than 10% of all trees cut off of the national forests are stolen, usually by timber companies that deliberately log outside the boundaries of timber sales offered by the agency. The annual toll involves hundreds of thousands of trees valued at more than $100 million.

The situation was so rife with theft and fraud that in 1991 Congress set up a Timber Theft Task Force to investigate tree stealing on federal lands. The ten-person team launched three probes: timber theft on the ground, accounting fraud, and complicity and obstruction of justice by Forest Service managers.

The team won an early victory. In 1993, the Columbia River Scaling Bureau, a supposedly independent accounting agency that measures and values timber logged off the national forests in Oregon and Washington, was convicted of fraud. The Bureau deliberately undervalued logs in return for kickbacks from timber companies. The firm was hit with a $3.2 million fine.

But this was just a tune up for much bigger fish, namely the largest privately-owned timber company in the world: Weyerhaeuser. The investigation was code-named "Rodeo." The task force had compiled evidence that Weyerhaeuser had illegally cut more than 88,000 trees off of the Winema National Forest in southern Oregon. The pilfered trees were valued at more than $5 million. Moreover, investigators suspected that managers in at least three different Forest Service offices had gotten wind of the investigation, tipped off Weyerhaeuser, destroyed documents and tried to silence agency whistleblowers.

As the investigation picked up steam in the spring of 1995, the head of the task force, Al Marion, traveled to Denver for a secret meeting with the chief of the Forest Service, Jack Ward Thomas, hand-picked for the position by Bill Clinton. Thomas, a wildlife biologist, had won the job after his role in spearheading Option 9, the infamous Clinton forest con job that restarted logging in the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Marion outlined the investigation for Thomas and Manny Martinez, his newly-appointed deputy for law enforcement. The lead investigator told Thomas that the evidence was compelling and that there would be a good probability of criminal convictions and recovery of large civil fines.

According to notes from the session taken by Martinez, Thomas told Marion that he would give his team "18 months to finish the cases" and promised them an additional $300,000 to pursue the investigation. In the next few weeks, the team developed new leads suggesting that Weyerhaeuser's tree theft was systematic and may have been occurring on three other national forests in the region. One estimate suggested that Weyerhaeuser might have been illegally logging more than 33,000 trees a month.

Most of the illegal logging done by Weyerhaeuser occurred in so-called salvage sales, where only dead and dying trees were meant to be cut. Instead, Weyerhaeuser crews, often operating at night, logged off thousands of healthy ponderosa pines and hauled them off to mills under cover of darkness.

On other occasions, timber theft investigators alleged, Weyerhaeuser crews logged off green trees in open daylight under the nose of Forest Service officials and then bundled the green trees in with stacks of dead lodgepole pines.

"They bundled the trees, sometimes 20 trees to a bundle," says Dennis Shrader, the lead investigator in the Rodeo case. "I estimated that as many as ten trees per bundle were green trees."

Yet, just as the task force was closing it on its culprits its work came to a crashing halt. Less than a four weeks after the Denver meeting with Jack Ward Thomas, Marion received a bizarre letter from the chief thanking him for his service and disbanding the task force immediately. The letter was hand delivered by Martinez.

Marion and his colleagues were out of a job. Thomas ordered their files seized and locked in a vault, where they remained for the next ten months. Marion retired rather than be relocated to West Virginia. Shrader, the head of the Weyerhaeuser investigation, was reassigned to a desk job in a storage closet in the Portland office of the Forest Service.

Why did Thomas pull the plug? It now seems evident that the order came directly from the White House in order to protect Weyerhaeuser executives, who were longtime friends and backers of Clinton, his chief of staff Mac McLarty and his top White House counsel Bruce Lindsay.

A Bunch of Shrubbish
Near Hood Canal, the Olympic National Park's border is surrounded by the Olympic National Forest. It's a prime spot to see what the National Forest Service has been doing for the past decade, and to compare it to what real, mature, old-growth forest inside the Olympic National Park looks like.

You can literally see the park boundary. You know the moment you've crossed it. The checkerboard of clearcuts alternating with match-stick trees disappears. Inside the park you can feel that you've entered a world that's alive. It's as if you've stepped onto the belly of a giant organism that's breathing, drawing in a slow, deep breath, the ground slowly, infinitesimally swelling beneath your feet. You wait and wait for the exhale, but it never comes, because the breath is still being drawn. It started centuries ago. It makes you feel small and insignificant--no more important than a bird or a beetle or a fish swimming in the Skokomish River.

It takes me back to being a child, and I love it.

In the national forest, however, such places are almost gone. Some popular hiking trails have been obliterated by clearcuts and road-building. The only mature forests--you can't really call them old growth, in comparison to the park's old growth--are left on steep mountainsides, difficult to log, and, in many cases, difficult to hike. They're lovely hikes, nevertheless--what little you can see of the trees as you sweat and strain and scramble upwards, only to be rewarded with a view that shows you just how bad the clearcuts really are.

When Bill Clinton signed the Salvage Logging Rider, it gave the Forest Service permission to "manage" our national forests to largely benefit commercial logging interests. Clearcuts continued unabated, and it was only the work of a few environmental groups suing in the courts and the direct action of environmental activists--those folks the Bush administration have wrongly labeled "ecoterrorists"--who slowed it down. The "thinning" that was done involved taking out the biggest, most commercially viable trees in a stand and leaving behind the small, toothpick trees behind.

Those tiny trees provide no shade to speak of, and so underbrush has multiplied, creating a choking, groundlevel brush that turns tinder-dry during a hot, dry summer like we've had this year. Contrast that with the mature forest in places like the Olympic National Park, where enormous, old-growth trees provide deep shade and the ground is largely bare (it can even be hard to find the trail sometimes, since the dirt path looks the same as the forest floor). Scratch the ground with the heel of your boot, and you find it moist. The air is damp and cool, mushrooms grow easily, and moss clings to the trees, even when the forest hasn't seen rain for over a month. But the forest still has the fog--heavy, dewy, shroud-like fog drawn off the water by the big trees themselves, as if they could summon a drink whenever they feel like it. While the sun burns that moisture right out of the shrubby land and spindly trees in the lower elevations, the national park's old-growth trees hold the moisture, and provide the best safeguard against fire of any kind.

So George W.'s argument that thinning trees off the national forests is bullshit. Such talk is code for "more clearcuts for my pals at Boise Cascade." They now want everything--big trees, little trees, even the stuff they used to consider trash. Anything to keep the mills running.

George W. understands forests about as much as he understands quantum physics. It's the thinning of mature trees over the past decade coupled with the clearcuts on public and private lands that have made this year's savage wildfires possible. George W. is not providing balm to the folks whose houses have been destroyed. No, he's lining his pocket with contributions from commercial logging interests.

As George W. stands in a burned-out area, kicking ash with the toe of his expensive cowboy boots, you can bet he's never seen a real rainforest. He doesn't have the time. His tour to Oregon and California is filled with million-dollar fundraising dinners for Republican candidates, all scheduled in quick succession to raise as much money as possible before the new, stricter campaign finance rules take effect. The camera bulbs flash, the TV screens flicker, the sound bites air, and the newspapers run his words verbatim without a hint of irony or question.

Meanwhile, the real story goes untold. Facts are not important. A spokesman from the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop, Washington, does a little investigation of his own and finds that over the past decade, only 20% of the lands burned in wildfires was national forest land. The rest were private lands, tribal lands, and other types of public lands--and much of those were grasslands and areas covered in shrubs or other low-growing vegetation. This study has largely been ignored.

We better start paying attention, making noise, speaking the truth. We need to go out and see for ourselves what the Forest Service and commercial logging interests--the real ecoterrorists--have already done to our lands.

If we don't, our national forest lands could soon be reduced to shrublands, as the Shrub-in-Chief obviously intends.

Washington Post
"The Bush administration, in one of its biggest environmental decisions, moved yesterday to open nearly one-third of all remote national forest lands to road building, logging and other commercial ventures.

The 58.5 million acres involved, mainly in Alaska and in western states, had been put off limits to development by President Bill Clinton eight days before he left office in January 2001."

The Age
"A new regulation put forth by the Bush Administration this week would allow the building of roads in many of the most remote, pristine areas of the country's national forests and open them to logging and mining.

The policy change is aimed at so-called roadless areas - huge tracts of national forests that have been accorded protection because they have special ecological significance, such as harbouring headwaters of streams.

Affected are 23.7 million hectares of America's 77 million hectares of national forest, including 27,500 hectares of the 305,000-hectare Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia."

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