Trees' Company

An unusual marriage of convenience between a northern Colorado environmental group and loggers could end in divorce quicker than you can say "Timber!" For the moment, however, the two sides, which have butted heads many times in the past, are united in protest against the way the U.S. Forest Service is divvying up a national forest spanning the Colorado-Wyoming border for sale to timber companies.

Forest Service supervisor Jerry Schmidt, who calls the shots concerning timber sales in the Medicine Bow National Forest, says this is the only time in recent memory that he can recall timber interests teaming up with an environmental group.

Environmentalists generally oppose logging of any kind in national forests, but they would rather deal with small companies than with giants such as Louisiana Pacific that "clearcut" bigger bites of the land.

"It's not like we're best pals now," says Friends of the Bow founder Jeff Kessler of the alliance between his group and the Western Forest Industry Timber Council, which represents the small logging companies in the area. "However, in this instance, we both want the same thing from the Forest Service: full disclosure regarding timber-sale contracts."

Matt Reedy of the Timber Council also expresses his reticence about the union. "I thought long and hard about hooking up with Friends of the Bow," says Reedy. "I had a sick feeling the night before making the decision."

Although both sides are uneasy about their truce, they contend that the Forest Service is sloppily, as well as illegally, marking boundaries for timber harvesting.

"The result," says Reedy, "is that we're losing timber volume through the cracks. There was one sale that was supposedly going to turn out to be eight million board feet, but after it was all said and done, we ended up with a timber sale of six million board feet. And there was no documentation why that was occurring. Up until that point, we'd never taken a good look at how the projects on the ground matched up to the proposals."

The environmentalists are upset with the Forest Service for not sticking to arrangements and often tagging the wrong trees to be cut. The standard procedure for a timber sale, according to the Forest Service, is that proposals must first be subjected to an "environmental analysis" during which the proposed sale is open to public comment. If the sale passes public muster, Forest Service workers then go into the woods to meticulously mark individual trees or boundaries. The "layout foresters" then record these boundaries on a "contract map" so that the timber harvester who gets the bid knows which trees to cut. In theory, the maps for the environmental analysis and the sale contract should be in exact agreement.

Reedy is concerned not only that the timber companies he represents are getting shorted by the Forest Service but also that his clients' public image is besmirched when environmentalists complain that the wrong areas have been harvested.

"It's easy to assume that any discrepancy is the fault of the timber companies, not the Forest Service," says Reedy. "We're always the bad guys. But the truth is that we take the rap for every gaffe by the Forest Service. We only do what the Forest Service tells us to do. If the Forest Service finds out that undesignated trees are being cut, they'll shut down the whole operation."

Kessler's group, in contrast, is frustrated that the Forest Service is making changes to previously agreed-upon cuts without informing the public, sometimes shifting the boundaries to include trees that the public has been assured won't be harvested.

Reedy and Kessler say they've discovered several timber-sale contracts that don't match up with their original environmental analyses. "It seems like a pattern of incompetence," says Kessler, "like the Forest Service people are just going through the motions. Or maybe they just don't give a shit."

Kessler claims a Forest Service employee told him that the agency did one timber inventory from a truck that was traveling at thirty miles an hour.

"Baloney," says the Forest Service's Schmidt. "We're not a bunch of yokels who don't care about our job. We're proud of the work we do."

Schmidt acknowledges that there's always room for human error. Although he claims to know of only one instance in which the Forest Service screwed up the boundaries of a timber sale, he says it's difficult to be exact when transferring data from the office to the outdoors.

"Things pop up that force you to change your plans," says Schmidt. "Say you're on the ground flagging boundaries and you come across a new goshawk nest that wasn't there when you did the EA. You've got to make adjustments in the unit boundary because of that.

"It's like if you're building your own house," he goes on. "You get an architect and settle on a design. Then you hire a contractor who starts shaping the actual house. But as it's moving along, you notice changes you want to make--a window here, a railing here--which gives you a little different house. Even though it's still based on the original design, it's a better house. Everything we do is within the scope of the original analysis. Reedy and Friends of the Bow are nitpicking."

Although Schmidt admits he is surprised that Reedy and Kessler have joined forces, he says he can understand why they did. "The Friends of the Bow," he says, "want smaller annual timber cuts by smaller, local outfits, and the companies that Reedy represents are mostly little 'post and pole' operations which can't compete with the larger companies like Louisiana Pacific [which also harvests in the Bow]. Reedy thinks that as land gets scarcer and timber contracts smaller, guys like LP will leave. Reedy is in business, and he's doing what's best for his clients."

Schmidt notes that Reedy isn't exactly cutting his own throat by criticizing the Forest Service's handling of timber sales. "If you'll notice," says Schmidt, "none of the timber contracts that he's contesting belong to his clients."

Although there are issues the environmentalists and the Timber Council disagree on--the environmentalists don't want any logging going on--the truce seems sound for the moment.

"It's not a question of if we're friends," says Kessler. "It's a strategic alliance that will last as long as it's advantageous. Then we'll probably go after each other again.