Timber theft detectives feel a chill

  In 1993, investigations by the Forest Service's elite Timber Theft Task Force led to eight felony convictions and $3.5 million in fines, including the largest timber prosecution in U.S. history against an Oregon-based timber-scaling company (HCN, 8/23/93). The following year, the task force failed to produce a single prosecution, despite abundant evidence that people were still stealing trees owned by the public on national forests.


"Whatever happened to 1994?" asked Larry Campbell of Voice of the Environment, a Montana-based group.


Task force agents answered that question in a strongly worded letter sent to Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas Sept. 9, 1994. In the letter, 10 of the 17 agents said their hands were tied after 1993 because of a backlash from old-guard agency managers, who "winked at industry misconduct and blackened the eyes of agents who did not wink with them." Later, four more agents added their names to the letter, according to one of the agents' lawyers, Thomas Devine of the Government Accountability Project, a private group formed to protect whistleblowers.


Since that letter, investigations have begun into the affairs of the once-prized task force. But despite recent efforts by the Forest Service to correct the problems, critics charge the task force continues in disarray.


Prodded by Congress, the Forest Service founded the Timber Theft Task Force in 1991. Its task: to nail timber companies in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska suspected of stealing trees worth tens of millions of dollars from public lands.


But in their letter, agents said the Forest Service punished rather than rewarded them for doing their job. Agents pointed out that Forest Service managers even tried to abolish the task force during hearings in 1993. Congress, however, increased funding for the force and imposed a "straightline" structure - a direct reporting line to the chief - to free the team from regional offices.


Nonetheless, agents said, regional reins tightened on timber-theft investigations.


Agents said that the new task force chief, Lowell Mansfield, told them: "If we never investigate another timber theft, it won't matter. What matters is getting along with the regions."


Under what was meant to be better management, agents said:


* They no longer had authority to initiate new cases;


* New rules requiring them to wear uniforms and drive marked cars crippled undercover efforts;


* Regional managers often transferred agents at critical moments, thus stalling or ending investigations;


* and managers harassed the most effective and outspoken team members, leading some to request transfers or removal from the investigating team.


"The effect on morale from disrupting our family lives, abusing us personally and paralyzing us professionally has been devastating," the agents concluded. "It now appears these actions are part of a perverse plan - gutting morale and sparking individual resignations as a way to kill the task force."


Attorney Devine said the situation has improved since Forest Service Chief Thomas met with the agents last fall in Portland. Afterward, Thomas ousted Mansfield and temporarily reinstalled Al Marion as task force chief. Marion had been team leader but was transferred after disobeying orders not to present team ideas at a management review. Forest Service critics also said they were pleased by the appointment of Manuel Martinez, a well-respected special agent from Albuquerque, as the new law enforcement chief for the entire agency.


But environmentalists worry the Forest Service will dismantle the task force, putting enforcement back in the hands of regional managers who work closely with the timber industry they police.


Forest Service officials say they can't discuss the future of its timber-theft investigative team until Chief Thomas responds to an internal report by the Agriculture Department's Inspector General. The report, agency insiders say, is more than 2,000 pages long and contains no recommendations - only sworn affidavits from 70 Forest Service employees.


Even if Thomas gets his house back in order, Campbell, of Voice of the Environment, and others insist the Forest Service must be held accountable for the task force's missing year of enforcement. Seventeen environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, National Audubon Society and Greenpeace, filed a petition March 7 with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno asking for a federal investigation. Her office has not yet responded.


Alan Polk, a spokesman for the Forest Service, denies that investigations of timber theft have slowed down. He confirmed that the task force had no prosecutions in 1994, but pointed out that in the same year regional law enforcement officers settled timber-theft cases worth $2.2 million in fines.


For more information, call Alan Polk at the U.S. Forest Service, 202/205-1134. Voice of the Environment also recently published a scathing report, Chainsaw Justice: The U.S. Forest Service Out of Control, documenting Forest Service abuses including obstruction of the task force. To obtain a copy of the report and the agents' letter, send $15 to Voice of the Environment, Box 915, Hamilton, MT 59840. The Government Accountability Project can be reached at 202/408-0034.


* Elizabeth Manning


HCN intern