Forest Service lops off timber task force

  Agents of the Forest Service's elite Timber Theft Task Force received two form letters at an April 6 meeting with Forest Service law enforcement director Manuel Martinez. The first letter thanked them for their service; the second said their unit was immediately dissolved. "It defies understanding that you'd take the most successful agents in the Forest Service and put them out of work," says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE). Although several Forest Service watchdog groups predicted that Chief Jack Ward Thomas would soon dismantle the force (HCN, 4/3/95), Jeff Ruch, an attorney for the agents, says the announcement came as a shock. He says Thomas assured the agents he would meet with them before deciding their future. The task force's problems have mounted ever since its aggressive investigations in 1993 led to the largest timber-prosecution case in U.S. history. Afterward, the agents charged in a letter that regional managers subverted their work. "The letter was probably considered an act of rebellion," says Stahl. Martinez says an internal report by the Agriculture Department's Inspector General found no evidence to support the agents' complaints. Martinez says he and Chief Thomas decided to integrate the task force into the regular law enforcement program because reorganization last year made regular agents more independent and efficient. Three major task force investigations under way will be turned over to regional special agents, but several task force members will continue work on the cases, he says. Stahl says reorganization steps backward: "Now we're returning to precisely the same model that proved itself incapable of working."

"Elizabeth Manning

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