A report released by the U.S. Forest Service last week indicates taxpayer subsidies for logging on national forests are at an all-time high. According to the government’s Timber Sale Program Information and Reporting Systems (TSPIRS), the Forest Service lost $126 million on logging operations in 1998. The timber sale program generated $546 million, but cost $672 million to operate, according to the Forest Service’s own numbers.
The report is consistent with numbers from the federal General Accounting Office, which indicates a loss of nearly $2 billion from 1992 to 1997 in federal timber sales.
“Money doesn’t grow on trees, but in this case it may,” says Jonathan Oppenheimer, program director at Taxpayers United for Common Sense, a Washington D.C.-based watchdog group. “This report makes clear that timber companies have squandered millions of taxpayer dollars with federally subsidized, inefficient logging practices.”
What’s worse for the Forest Service is substantial evidence that losses may be higher than their own report indicates. The TSPIRS report is usually due out in May of the year after which it reports, but the ’98 numbers were pushed back by 20 months. According to Oppenheimer, by postponing the release of the report, the Forest Service had the chance to crunch the numbers in a way that makes the timber programs seem less damaging. The same numbers, when calculated by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, concluded that losses were closer to $150 million.
Bob Schrenk, spokesman for the Forest Service’s Region I timber sales program in Missoula, declined to comment on the losses calculated by the Forest Service or any other agency. “There’s a mandate for us to report on these numbers,” Schrenk notes. “There is not a mandate—in timber, recreation, or land management—to break even or turn a profit.”
But according to Matthew Koehler of the Native Forest Network, the profits are being reaped by the timber companies the Forest Service subsidizes by providing timber to them at a loss, which translates as a burden to taxpayers.
“With less than 3 percent of the nation’s timber coming from national forests, it’s irresponsible and short-sighted to force the American taxpayers to continue subsidizing the logging of national forests,” Koehler says. “Taxpayer dollars would be better spent on non-commercial-based restoration projects, worker training, and alternative fiber development than on the outdated federal timber sales program.”
Koehler notes that Americans annually throw away—in the form of wood and paper waste—about four times the amount of timber harvested from federal land each year.