Trading Away the West Home

Part 1 / The Corporations

Copyright © 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Posted at 12:58 p.m. PDT; Sunday, September 27, 1998

Last-minute revelations fail to scotch land trade with Crown Pacific

BEND, Ore. - Old-growth forest in the Northwest is zealously guarded by hikers, hunters and environmentalists bent on preserving what's left after a century of logging and development.

So it caused a stir here when the U.S. Forest Service proposed trading 31,000 acres of national forest - including 4,000 acres of old-growth - to a timber company.

Officials were quick to assure the public that the 35,000 acres they'd get in return from Crown Pacific Lumber contained at least 1,500 acres of old-growth, along with other fine wildlife habitat.

But no one from the agency had actually seen those 1,500 acres. The number came from a consultant's rough estimate, and it wasn't until the last minute that anyone actually looked.

That's when they made an embarrassing discovery: Most of the trees counted as old-growth really weren't. They could barely find a few hundred acres of forest that had reached that revered status by virtue of age and surrounding habitat.

"In the real world, that would've killed the deal immediately and all the players would've gone back to square one," said Roy Keene, a timber expert and environmental activist who opposed the trade.

But this one went forward without a hitch.

Forest Service officials slipped the corrected number into a revised version of the environmental-impact statement on the trade, and the deal was approved a few months later.

There was no reason to reconsider, explained Susan Skakel, who oversaw the environmental analysis for the exchange: "It didn't change the conclusion."

That's precisely the problem, according to Keene.

"The Forest Service had already made up their minds they were doing the deal no matter what," he said.

While the incident outraged local opponents, it wasn't the only cause for alarm. Records show the exchange process was marred by allegations of bias and political pressure - and largely run by Crown Pacific.

Lacking staff and money, the Forest Service ceded substantial control over this trade to Crown Pacific. It's a troublesome but common arrangement, spurred by agency policies that encourage local officials to strike their own land deals, without providing adequate resources to carry them out. In turn, the local officials hand the reins over to the private business with which they're dealing.

In south-central Oregon, the national forests and timber companies operated side by side over the past hundred years, but not in any orderly fashion. This exchange involved an ambitious plan to straighten the boundaries and eliminate scattered remnants of Crown Pacific land in three forests - Deschutes, Fremont and Winema.

But before officials could move forward, they had to figure out how to pay for it. Federal regulations require an appraisal, environmental analysis and public vetting - all of which can be time-consuming and costly. The local Forest Service offices didn't have the budget or staff. So they turned to Crown Pacific for help.

"It was agreed, early on, that it would be appropriate for Crown Pacific, in the interest of economy, efficiency and expedience, to handle all of the business of the exchange," Ted Young, lead negotiator for Crown Pacific, is quoted in agency records as saying.

Crown Pacific would choose and pay consultants to do the work, then be reimbursed by the government for half the costs.

The company hired Woody Robertshaw, a retired Forest Service official who is now a consultant based near Vancouver, Wash. One of his first tasks was to find someone to oversee the environmental analysis of the trade. Before Forest Service officials could approve the deal, they had to give the public evidence it was environmentally sound.

Robertshaw recommended a former Forest Service colleague, Dean Carrier, who'd also started his own consulting firm. Although both men were being paid by Crown Pacific, Carrier said, "He was contracted to represent Crown; I was contracted to represent the Forest Service."

An odd arrangement, given that Carrier was hired through Robertshaw and paid by Crown Pacific, but one that apparently gave Forest Service officials no concern. They point to built-in protections: Carrier reported to them, regardless of who paid him.

But records show those same Forest Service officials considered Carrier's work the property of Crown Pacific. At least that's what they told a citizen in a letter denying her request to review the material.

Though Crown Pacific representatives say the Forest Service had a big say in who was retained and how much they cost, agency memoranda indicate harried staff members quickly lost control of both - and grew concerned at spiraling expenses.

"Is there anywhere in the agreement that puts a spending cap on what Crown can spend or at least all parties agree to some levels in advance????" a supervisor wrote in late 1996. "Am very concerned about Crown having a open check book."

Concerns about the cost of the deal threatened to delay it indefinitely in early 1997, but Crown Pacific mustered the political support to keep it going. In a series of letters, Oregon Republican Congressman Robert Smith reminded forest supervisors that they'd "pledged support to this project." He urged them to speed the environmental analysis and demanded to know "what obstacles are slowing down the process."

Within days of the query about obstacles, James Golden, deputy supervisor of the Deschutes National Forest, promised Young he'd rush Carrier's analysis through the system, records show.

"I know that will impact other projects, but a deal is a deal," he wrote in an e-mail to agency staff.

The line staff complained about the short time to review the analysis. But a quick read revealed what many considered a fatal flaw - bias that wouldn't pass scientific or legal muster.

"This is one of the worst EAs (environmental analyses) I have ever reviewed," wrote a botanist, who found it "clearly biased toward . . . proceeding with the project."

"I'm embarrassed to have the Deschutes National Forest name attached to this document," another staffer wrote.

Under pressure to close the deal quickly, however, the Forest Service used Carrier's work as a basis for the environmental-impact statement.

It was during this rush that the faulty old-growth numbers slipped into the record. Deschutes officials were responsible for checking out the trees but, ignoring warnings from staffers at the other forests, waited until the bigger figure had been distributed to the public. It wasn't a high priority, said Skakel, the environmental team leader at Deschutes. "There's a big emphasis with the public on old-growth. It's not that we have a big concern about it."

Carrier acknowledged he favored the deal but insists he didn't let that color his analysis. There were gaps, he said, but said they stemmed from his inability to get key data about the trade lands from agency staff.

Besides, he said, the Forest Service has a reputation of its own for putting a favorable spin on hard facts.

A chart in the final report describes the downside of forests and the upside of logging in euphemistic landscaping language. The dense woods maintained by the Forest Service pose a fire risk, it says - but trading them to Crown Pacific would "improve open views."

Marv Lang, a Forest Service staffer responsible for drafting the recreation chapter, said he didn't have anything to do with the chart and found his work rewritten.

"It's kind of like you tell what you want them to hear," he said. "If you're trying to sell something, it's natural to do that. It's just a shame it gets that way in documents that are supposed to be objective."

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