San Francisco, CA, USA — A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today shows the Bush administration lost taxpayer dollars by logging remote, sensitive forests after the 2002 Biscuit fire. The report also documents that forest restoration and fire safety projects used to justify the controversial logging were not implemented. This report deals another serious blow to a post-fire logging bill now pending in Congress.
The Government Accounting Office (GAO) today confirmed that logging after the Biscuit fire in southern Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest lost money. The report released by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), ranking Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee revealed that the Biscuit logging project cost taxpayers nearly $2 million dollars.
Logging generated $8.8 million in receipts but expenses were $10.7 million. Most of the receipts generated were from low-cost hazard tree removal ($5.1 million) meaning that the losses from the controversial salvage sale portion of the Biscuit project were approximately $7 million.
The GAO’s findings prompted a strong response from Senator Bingaman who issued the following public statements:
This effort appears to be one of many instances where the Forest Service promised restoration and fuels reduction in conjunction with timber sales, did the logging at a cost of millions of tax dollars, and still has not started most of the restoration and other work. Taxpayers are going to have to spend millions more just cleaning up the damage from the logging than the government made from the timber sales. Meanwhile, as another recent study concluded, the logging killed 70 percent of the natural tree regeneration and elevated wildfire fuel loads. At the same time, promises of community fire protection, habitat restoration and scientific analyses remain unscheduled and unfulfilled.
Conservation groups, long critical of the Biscuit fire logging project and the flawed economics used to justify it, agree with the Senator. “The GAO report shows that the Forest Service, busy with controversial backcountry logging, failed to invest in fire safety projects that would have benefited local communities,” said Rolf Skar, campaign director of the Siskiyou Project. “Playing politics with our public lands comes at a high cost.”
The GAO released its study as the White House and as logging proponents are trying to pass legislation that would aggressively promote logging after natural disturbances under the guise of needing to restore forests. H.R. 4200, the Walden logging bill would further weaken environmental safeguards and opportunities for public involvement. The bill waives the National Environmental Policy Act, leaves roadless areas, old growth forests, and other special areas unprotected to many logging projects, threatens endangered species habitat, and could increase the risk of wildfire.
This report debunks supporters of H.R. 4200 who claim we need to scrap our environmental laws to speed logging, said Michael Francis, The Wilderness Society. Staff cuts, an overly large project targeting sensitive areas, and agency mistakes delayed logging at Biscuit not litigation.
The GAO report confirms what conservation groups earlier had claimed — that Biscuit logging was losing millions in below-cost timber sales. According to Dominick DellaSala, Executive Director of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy and an author of an earlier study on Biscuit logging, the Forest Service claimed that the purpose of the Biscuit logging project was to generate moderate to high levels of economic return but the agency lost millions when it accepted bid values far below what was anticipated due to low demand for burned trees and high cost of getting them in remote areas.
“The Forest Service continues to treat post-fire logging sales as if the laws of economics are suspended using flawed accounting methods to justify below-cost sales, said DellaSala. This is precisely why we don’t need sweeping legislation to authorize more below-cost logging projects that set back recovery when forests are most vulnerable to logging after wildfires.”
Other studies by the GAO during the 1990s found that most timber sales on the National Forests lose money. From 1992-1997 the GAO estimated the Forest Service timber sale program lost over $300 million each year. A more recent independent analysis estimates losses from the timber sale program are now much higher — $860 million in 2004.
“This study confirms what many have known all along; that logging after fires is a lose-lose proposition, said Randi Spivak, Executive Director for American Lands Alliance. Not only is the sale a money loser, but roadless areas and old growth forests have been damaged and the Forest Service doesnt have the money to complete promised restoration work.
The Report found:
— Delays in the project were caused by an extreme downsizing of Forest Service staff that saw one-third of the forests personnel eliminated dropping from 619 staff in 2002 to 400 staff in 2005.
— The size of the proposed logging and changes in roadless area management authorities contributed to delays in producing alternatives and a final decision.
— Litigation played no role in delaying implementation of the logging project.
— Other recovery worked promised under the Biscuit project to reduce hazardous fuels, and rehabilitate wildlife habitat is unlikely to occur unless additional funds are appropriated.