(CNSNews.com) - The theft of timber in national forests could escalate under the plan proposed by President Bush to combat forest fires, some environmentalists claim.
The idea of "timberjacking" -- the illegal taking of trees in federal forests by timber companies -- has its skeptics, most notably the logging industry. Groups representing logging companies said the concept is an attempt by environmentalists to exaggerate an issue that exists only with mom-and-pop operations looking for a tree here and a tree there.
The theft of trees used to be the focus of a task force at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, (USDA), but in a 1995 reorganization, the USDA's Forest Service abolished its timber theft investigative unit, transferring greater control to individual forest mangers and regional offices.
With less oversight from the Forest Service, timber companies were able to generate greater profits by expanding operations into protected boundaries, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a government watchdog group that works on behalf of federal employees.
Now, Ruch said, with Bush asking Congress to make it easier for the timber industry to manage public forests, companies would be able to bend the rules even further when it comes to logging on public lands.
"The administration's latest plan, as I understand it, would give timber companies broad management responsibility," Ruch said. "In return for removing underbrush and collecting unattractive timber, they get as compensation the opportunity to remove attractive timber."
Ruch called the plan a "large-scale privatization of the national forest."
"It would be like giving bank robbers control of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.," he said. "It would be like putting them in charge of bank regulation."
Several attempts by CNSNews.com to obtain figures about timber thefts from the Forest Service were unsuccessful. Forest Service spokeswoman Heidi Valetkevitch said the agency continues to track such crimes, but she referred questions to the Forest Service's law enforcement unit, which did not return calls.
But Ruch said the agency no longer tracks timber thefts as it once did when the task force existed.
In the early 1990s, timber theft cost taxpayers an estimated $100 million per year in lost revenue, according to a study by Ruch's organization and the Government Accountability Project. Neither group had updated monetary figures or estimates about the number of timber thefts.
But big lumber companies disagree that they are part of the problem. In fact, Chris West, spokesman for the Portland, Ore.-based American Forest Resource Council, said logging companies help keep things honest.
"The best source of policing, above and beyond the Forest Service, comes from other companies," West said. "If somebody is stealing out there, they're getting a competitive advantage over their neighbors. People aren't going to put up with that."
Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist in Denver with The Wilderness Society, rejects West's theory. He said even the Forest Service has difficulty persuading logging companies to comply with existing laws.
"The Forest Service has a long history of being unable to enforce its own restrictions on timber operators," Aplet said. "It's not just a matter of not having the resources or sufficient law enforcement power. It has as much to do with the incentives that drive agency behavior. For a long time, the agency was rewarded for getting the 'cut' out."
When he worked for the Forest Service, Aplet said, a regional manager once reprimanded an inspector for shutting down a logging operation. The inspector, according to Aplet, had claimed a timber company employee had driven a vehicle over an archeological site.
"To think the Forest Service will be any better able to patrol the actions of contractors ... I just don't see how we can have confidence that will happen," Aplet said.
Tim Wigley, president of the Oregon Forest Industries Council, said the Forest Service creates more problems than it solves when regulating logging operations. Private forests are better managed than public forests, he said, because logging companies know more about what works than bureaucrats in the nation's capital.
West agreed and said stories about timber thefts are mostly isolated incidents. He disputed suggestions that it was a national problem that needed fixing.
"The environmentalists are trying to make an issue out of an attempt by the president to deal with a catastrophic situation," West said. "Scientists, professors and Congress have said we have to thin our forests to reduce the risk of wildfires. It's simply doing what all private landowners throughout the nation already do on their land."
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