Stealing trees is as old as the King’s timber reserves. The sanctions for such sylvan thievery have always been harsh. In medieval England, it meant public torture and slow death. In the US, the levy was a kind of financial death penalty _ triple damages plus serious jail time.
A couple of years ago, two tree poachers drove a log truck onto a small farm in central Indiana after midnight, cut down two 100-year old black walnut trees in the small woodlot, loaded the pilfered trunks onto their truck and fled across a cornfield. The county sheriff caught them when their truck stalled in the field and sank in the mud. It turns out that the men had been hired by a local sawmill owner, who was set to sell the lumber to a German timber broker. All three men were tried and convicted of tree theft.
The black walnut trees, highly prized by German furniture makers, were valued at $150,000 each. The men were hit with $900,000 in fines and three years of jail time.
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.
In the 1960s, Seattle-based Weyerhaeuser, enticed by cheap land prices and non-union labor, began buying up forestland in the southeast. By the time Bill Clinton was elected governor in 1978, Weyerhaeuser was the largest landowner in Arkansas. During Clinton’s idealistic first term, he tried to curtail the roughshod logging practices of the timber industry in the state by placing limits on clearcutting, aerial pesticide spraying and logging near streams and rivers. The new regulations riled Weyerhaeuser, which poured money into the campaign of Clinton’s rival Frank White. Clinton lost and retreated to a corporate law firm in Little Rock run by his pal Bruce Lindsay to lick his wounds and plot his return to power.
Lindsay soon introduced the humbled Clinton to Jack Creighton, Weyerhaeuser’s CEO. Clinton confessed his mistakes and pledged to devote himself to protecting Weyerhaeuser’s interests should he ever return to the governor’s mansion. The timber giant accepted Clinton’s apologies, invested heavily in his re-election bid and remained a faithful political sponsor over the next 20 years.
When local Forest Service officials tipped Weyerhaeuser to the criminal probe on the Winema Forest, Weyerhaeuser executives complained to their two protectors in the Clinton inner circle, McLarty and Lindsay. The White House instructed political appointees in the Department of Agriculture to tell Thomas to kill the investigation. And it was so.
“The bottom line is that Weyerhaeuser is one of the largest companies in the world,” says Shrader. “When you’ve got an organization that large and with that kind of clout and that amount of resources, they are able to apply political pressure.”
While Thomas may have intervened in order to save Weyerhaeuser, his decision to terminate the task force entirely had the effect of halting of every other timber fraud investigation then under way.
Up in southeast Alaska a two-year long probe by the task force had uncovered an even grander timber theft scheme unfurling on the Tongass National Forest, the nation’s largest publicly-owned forest. Investigator Steven Slagowski had been presented with compelling evidence that large rafts of timber logged off the Tongass by the Ketchikan Pulp Company, owned by Louisiana-Pacific, were routinely disappearing at night before they could be scaled and inventoried by Forest Service workers. The timber ended up being sold to lucrative Asian markets, in violation of federal laws requiring the logs to be sent to Alaska mills.
This was just one of a number of scams on the Tongass uncovered by Slagowski and his colleagues in 1994. He estimated that as much as one out of every three trees logged from the Tongass was illegally cut. In some cases, entire islands were clearcut with the timber companies paying little or nothing for the trees. The illegal cutting often occurred in endangered species habitat. He noted that nesting sites for bald eagles and marbled murrelets, a small forest-nesting seabird, were both routinely clearcut. “It was theft of unprecedented proportions,” says Slagowski.
As in Oregon, the Tongass timber theft ring thrived with the collusion of Forest Service officials, many of them high ranking. Forest Service managers routinely gave advance warning to targets of the investigation and the regional office, based in Juneau, twice convened secret “vulnerability assessment teams.” On both occasions, the teams included managers suspected of either being complicit with the timber thieves or participating in the cover-up.
All of this has come out through a lawsuit filed with the US Merit Systems Protection Board by five members of the task force who are seeking the return of their jobs. The MSPB is a federal administrative court charged with hearing claims brought by federal whistleblowers who have suffered retaliation for exposing government corruption.
These days instead of going after multi-million dollar timber theft rings Forest Service law enforcement teams spend their time arresting environmental protesters, pulling up pot plants and harassing poor Hispanics in northern New Mexico who gather firewood from federal forests without a permit.
“Since 1995, ongoing investigations have been disrupted or are simply gathering dust,” says Tom Devine, a lawyer at the Government Accountability Project, which represents Marion and five other whistleblowers from the quashed task force. “No new major fraud cases have been opened and only small, firewood theft cases are being investigated.”
Steal a tree for firewood go to jail. Steal an entire forest of trees and ship the logs to Japan and watch your company’s stock soar.
The Bush administration, naturally, sees no compelling reason to restart an investigation into white-collar crime in the forest. Instead, they have moved to make it easier for timber companies to legally steal trees from the public lands. In November, Bush signed the deceptively-titled Healthy Forests Initiative, which prescribes wholesale clearcutting of public forests immune from legal challenge and environmental strictures _ all in the name of fire prevention.
A couple of weeks later, Bush issued an executive order opening 300,000 acres of ancient forest on the Tongass to logging. Clinton had deferred logging on these lands, but rejected pleas from environmentalists to permanently protect the temperate rainforest from cutting. Bush exploited the loophole at the request of Alaska’s Senator Ted Stevens, who, as detailed in an extraordinary profile in the Los Angeles Times, has exploited the appropriations process to enrich himself, his family and his son’s clients, including timber companies operating on the Tongass.
None of this logging will have to take place under the cover of darkness.
JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature.