Did agency get in bed with loggers?


Last month, when environmentalists began digging through federal documents about logging in Idaho's Payette National Forest, they thought they'd found evidence of a Forest Service-timber industry conspiracy. Members of the Neighbors of Cuddy Mountain and the Idaho Sporting Congress discovered records of a 300-year-old grove of fir and pine trees that the Forest Service denied existed. They also found a letter from Boise Cascade Corp., asking the government to keep a lid on harvest plans in the forest.

Conspiracy accusations flew, but a federal judge has disagreed, approving Boise Cascade's logging plans.

The debate began in 1995, when the Forest Service announced the Payette National Forest Grade-Dukes timber sale. Environmentalists, concerned about wildlife habitat, asked the agency about surveys of old-growth trees in the forest. Agency officials - who awarded the sale to Boise Cascade - denied having records of old growth, but the environmental groups filed suit and won access to national forest documents. Activists found records of an 840-acre grove of fir and pine trees that, the records concluded, "appears to be entirely old growth from end to end."

Then they saw the letter: a Boise Cascade petition, dated April 24, 1995, asking Payette National Forest officials not to release information about old growth "under the Freedom of Information Act or any other laws that appear to require release."

Forest Service spokeswoman Meira Crawford calls the situation a "mix-up," not a cover-up, and Boise Cascade officials say they wrote the letter to prevent eco-terrorist threats to company equipment and employees. "We would never intend to log federal land in a secretive manner," said Boise Cascade spokesman Doug Bartels.

Environmentalists disagree. "There is evidence of a possible criminal conspiracy," says Tom Woodbury, an attorney for the Idaho Sporting Congress. He tried to use the documents to prove conspiracy in federal court. But, on May 30, U.S. District Court Judge Mikel Williams gave Boise Cascade the green light to log. He ruled there was no clear evidence the Forest Service violated laws.

Woodbury is appealing.

* Jamie Murray, HCN intern