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Illegal Log Exports - ‘Gold Bullion’ Sitting on Docks

November 20, 1989

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Japanese lumber mills are paying three or four times U.S. prices, and trees worth millions of dollars cut from national forests may be exported illegally each year at a cost of American jobs.

Northwest timber exports in 1988 were at least 4.3 billion board-feet, up 20 percent from 1987. Most of that was legal - cut from private and state lands or, under limited authorization, from national forests. But federal law requires that national forest timber be milled in the United States.

″Since it’s illegal, nobody really knows how much is going off the docks. As a wild estimate, I would imagine that maybe 5 percent might be federal logs. You’re talking about $115 million to $120 million in lost revenue,″ said Chuck Sisco, a forester for the National Audubon Society.

Ted LaDoux, a spokesman for the Northwest Independent Forest Manufacturers Association, disputes that estimate.

″There are people that have made claims that some are being exported,″ he said. ″Our opinion is that, if it is occurring, it is a real small percentage. We don’t think it’s a major problem.″

But three men are awaiting trial in Montana on charges of diverting more than 500,000 board-feet of national forest timber for illegal export. And the U.S. Forest Service says it doesn’t know for sure how big the problem is; there are no full-time law enforcement agents assigned to illegal export.

″We still don’t have the blessing of the powers-that-be to go ahead with it to any great extent,″ said John McCormick, an investigator at the agency’s office in Portland, Ore., adding that Congress generally sets the priorities.

″They control the purse strings,″ McCormick said. ″During the summer months, drugs are our priority. Practically everyone is working on drugs, primarily marijuana growing.″

Forest Service uncertainty over exports comes amid timber shortages blamed for layoffs, sawmill closures and increased industry-conservationist rancor.

″People could get killed out there″ if more trees aren’t made available, said a speaker at the annual meeting of the Montana Wood Products Association.

The region may suffer shortages at sawmills, but not at the docks.

Exports of raw logs from the Pacific Northwest to Pacific Rim countries jumped from 3.7 billion board-feet in 1987 to 4.3 billion board-feet in 1988, said U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore. A fourth of all trees cut in Oregon and Washington were exported in 1988, at a cost of up to 30,530 mill jobs, he said.

Roughly a fifth of the timber from the 12 Western states is exported, the Western Wood Products Association says.

The Audubon Society’s Sisco said Commerce Department figures used by the Forest Service frequently under-report log exports, and he put the total at 5 billion board-feet. In Olympia, Wash., for example, Audubon Society researchers found exports of 230 million board-feet two years ago, while the Commerce Department and Forest Service reported around 26 million board-feet, he said.

Logs from federal lands are illegally included in the exports since they add up to ″a lot of money very quickly,″ said Doug Marker, an aide to DeFazio. ″If it was gold bullion sitting on the dock people would say, ‘Gee, that’s a lot of money going overseas.’ But with the logs sitting there, people don’t look.

″You’re talking about a serious amount of money being lost, either to the government or money being drained from the timber industry,″ Marker said.

Sisco said: ″It’s such big money, that is why the big companies have essentially closed their mills and they’re into log exports now - the log exports bring so much more money than the lumber would bring.″

He said that the Japanese pay ″at least three and four times″ the U.S. market price and that political pressure has blocked enforcement of the export ban on federal timber.

Congressional pressure to enforce the ban ″is mounting,″ said U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., who wants the annually renewed ban made permanent. ″The most important reason why Congress has not pressed on this is because, frankly, timber companies do not make one peep in support of proper enforcement of the export ban law.

″The same timber company that will argue about job losses because of environmental standards creates many, many times that job loss due to their exporting logs, which also happens to be a very profitable operation.″

A General Accounting Office report on job loss and law enforcement related to federal timber exports is due this month, and a Senate Banking subcommittee held hearings Nov. 7 on proposals by Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., to let states prohibit export of state-owned logs and to make the federal ban permanent.

″Public lands should contribute to addressing public needs,″ Oregon Gov. Neil Goldschmidt testified, adding there is a ″real timber supply need in the Pacific Northwest right now.″

″Timber that is harvested from our federal and state lands can make an important contribution to meeting this need,″ he said. ″Limiting exports is one positive way to do this while protecting other non-timber resources and saving American jobs.″

DeFazio and Williams have introduced companion measures in the House.

The state-timber bill would legitimize Alaska, Oregon, California and Idaho laws requiring in-state processing of logs, said a Packwood aide, Jon Stephens.

Meanwhile, in what prosecutors believe is the first trial of its kind, three Washington men are to go on trial Nov. 20 in Helena on charges of conspiring to export unprocessed federal logs to Japan. John Tortorelli of Bellevue, Winston Bentley of Spokane and Roger Britz of Orting were indicted on charges in the shipment of 558,515 board-feet of timber from national forest in Montana.

″There are only so many logs for our mills,″ said U.S. Attorney Pete Dunbar. ″If they are exporting logs illegally doesn’t that take away from the capability of Montana mills?″

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