Agency Receives Golden Fleece for Shady Forest Deal in West Virginia

Golden Fleece AwardAgency Receives Golden Fleece for Shady Forest Deal in West Virginia

Energy & Natural Resources,  | Quick Take
Nov 2, 2012  | 4 min read | Print Article

Washington, DC – Citing the illegal use of taxpayer dollars at the Northeastern Research Station’s Fernow Experimental Forest, a national taxpayer organization today awarded the United States Forest Service the dubious honor of the Golden Fleece Award.

“Either it’s amateur hour at the Forest Service, or these employees knowingly chose to defraud taxpayers,” commented Jonathan Oppenheimer, Director of the Forest Campaign at Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Either way, it cost taxpayers millions of dollars.”

According to a recent Office of the Inspector General (OIG) audit, the Fernow Experimental Forest, located in West Virginia, sold over nine million board feet of timber to three handpicked sawmills over a 12-year period. The forest collected $2.4 million from exclusive contracts with the sawmills, yet failed to report any of the revenue, as required by law.

Instead, the forest used the money to pay the Forest Service logging crews who logged, hauled, and decked the timber — a clear violation of recognized laws and regulations. The forest also did not share any of the money with the State of West Virginia, as required by a well-established 1908 law.

“It would be absurd to think that they didn’t know the rules,” continued Oppenheimer. “Obviously, they were of the opinion that this was their own personal forest to manage for the exclusive gain of these local sawmills.”

The OIG audit recommends that the Forest Service repay the State of West Virginia the $341,541 it owes the state and return the remaining $2.05 million to the U.S. Treasury.

“It will be difficult for the state of West Virginia and federal taxpayers to get their money back, since it has already been spent,” continued Oppenheimer.

Specifically, the OIG audit found that:

  • The forest managers failed to follow established bidding procedures;
  • The forest did not report the revenue generated from the timber sales and failed to share a portion of the receipts with the State of West Virginia, totaling $341,541;
  • The forest illegally augmented congressional appropriations by retaining timber revenue to cover the salaries of the logging crew;
  • The forest owes the U.S. Treasury over $2 million in revenue.

The OIG also accused the Fernow Experimental Forest of bypassing the mission of the station, by abusing “research” activities. According to the OIG audit, “the cited [timber] sales did not constitute ‘research’ and the timber purchasers did not furnish data to further the Station’s research programs.”

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“The public is going to have a hard time believing that a bargain basement sale of taxpayer-owned timber is a legitimate research program,” said Oppenheimer. “The only thing we learned here is that when nobody’s paying attention, it is easy to rip off the government.”

This is only the second Golden Fleece award presented since 1988, when Senator Proxmire retired from the Senate after 31 years. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the famous waste-busting award, former Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire last year asked Taxpayers for Common Sense to revive the Golden Fleece Award. Senator Proxmire is Honorary Chair of the group’s Advisory Committee. Today’s award is the second Golden Fleece awarded by the group.

“Unfortunately, American taxpayers have found a worthy heir to the title of the fleece in the actions of the Forest Service,” concluded Oppenheimer.

More Information: Forest Service Inspector General-Accounting for Timber Sales