Logging Loses Money, Agency Says -- Forest Service Accounting Reaches That Conclusion For First Time

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Forest Service is acknowledging for the first time that taxpayers are losing money logging national forests.

Environmentalists charged yesterday that the agency reached that conclusion months ago but kept it secret while Congress debated proposals to slow construction of logging roads.

"They've known this since March," said Michael Francis, a former congressional aide who runs the national forest program at The Wilderness Society. "They have been sitting on the numbers for their own political reasons."

Forest Service officials denied that. Due out last spring, agency officials say they still have not formally completed the annual report on logging revenue and expenses for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 1996.

A draft of the report, first reported by The Washington Post yesterday, says the government spent nearly $15 million more on the logging operations than private timber companies paid to purchase the wood.

"For the first time since we have reported such information, expenditures for the program-as-a-whole exceeded revenues for the program-as-a-whole by some $14.7 million," Deputy Forest Service Chief Robert Joslin said in a copy of the draft obtained by The Associated Press.

"This pattern can be expected to continue in the future as we place more and more emphasis on using timber sales as a management tool for achieving objectives other than fiber production," he said.

A Forest Service spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the report was late "truly more because of bureaucratic inefficiency than any conspiracy." The declining numbers follow a seven-year trend, he said, and reflect the agency's increased emphasis on environmentally sensitive logging.

"It costs more money to selectively harvest trees than it does to clear-cut them," he said.

The 1996 report will mark the first time the Forest Service has concluded, based on its own accounting practices, that the logging is a money loser.

Environmentalists long have accused the Forest Service of using accounting tricks to hide the fact it loses money on commercial logging.

For example, the Forest Service does not count as a cost the one-fourth of all timber sale receipts returned to rural counties where the forests are located.

The agency maintains that sharing the profits is a legal requirement and comes off the top before figuring expenses against revenue.

But conservationists say it clearly is a cost of the logging program because that money - $240 million in 1996 - is not returned to the U.S. treasury and reflects a loss to overall taxpayers.

Before last year, the logging-revenue numbers always were made public in February or March, Francis said. He said he had been pressing the agency since March for release of the new numbers.

"We knew they were done because we have sources in the Forest Service who we work nicely with and they told us," Francis said.

The last attempt to get the figures came in September as the Senate prepared to vote on an amendment to end the agency's construction of new logging roads. The amendment failed 51-49.

"It would have given us additional information before members of Congress to show how bad the commercial logging program is at the Forest Service," Francis said.