Still stealing trees

  Since the U.S. Forest Service disbanded its special timber-theft task force nearly a year ago, investigations of large-scale timber theft have ground to a halt. That's the conclusion of Unindicted Co-Conspirator, a report by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and the Governmental Accountability Project (GAP), a Washington, D.C.-based group that protects government whistle-blowers. The PEER/GAP report helped put timber theft back on the media's radar screen. The Los Angeles Times subsequently printed a front-page story on one stalled investigation profiled in the report, the "Rodeo" case. It alleged that Weyerhaeuser Co. stole millions of dollars' worth of timber - some 32,000 healthy green trees a month - from four national forests in California and Oregon over five years. After Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas abolished the task force, the case sat in a locked storage unit for 10 months. Says Jeff DeBonis, executive director of PEER, "His actions seem calculated to ensure that the investigation was never completed." Weyerhaeuser officials responded to the Times article by launching an internal investigation of the allegations. DeBonis adds that a March audit by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Inspector General - obtained by PEER through a Freedom of Information Act request - concludes that the agency lacks an adequate theft prevention program.

For a copy of the report, send $5 to PEER, 2001 S. Street N.W., Suite 570, Washington, DC 20009-1125 (202/265-PEER).