FELLED TREES, SHREDDED DOCUMENTSBIOLOGIST CLAIMS FOREST SERVICE DESTROYED DOCUMENTS ON TIMBER SALE
It was October 1994, and Peter Galvin, a conservation biologist, was studying trees slated for logging in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
The trees were part of the Hay Timber Sale, which had been contracted to Precision Pine and Timber in Heber. The project involved cutting about eight million board feet on 1,600 acres of land just outside the town of Greer.
Galvin started asking questions, like how many of the trees--some of which are three feet in diameter--were to be cut. None of the answers matched up. Worst of all, he says, the U.S. Forest Service hadn't followed proper procedures under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), designed to study alternatives and ensure the harvest wouldn't harm the environment.
When word of Galvin's concern--and intention to file a citizen lawsuit--spread to Forest Service brass, they took action, Galvin says; they told the contractors to start cutting.
According to Galvin, Forest Service employees also began hiding documents and deleting computer files. On February 8, Galvin and two environmental groups filed a complaint asking a judge to halt the harvest. A temporary restraining order was issued by U.S. District Court Judge Paul Rosenblatt in Phoenix. (At press time, the TRO had been extended, pending settlement. If the case isn't settled, a hearing on a request for preliminary injunction should occur March 21.)
Along with his original complaint, Galvin filed a sworn statement in which he claims that Joel Quisenberry, administrator of the Hay Timber Sale, told him that Forest Service employees had deleted computer files and removed pertinent documents from the Hay file. Galvin claims some of the deletions were made after he had asked for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act.
In addition, Galvin says in the court statement, "Mr. Quisenberry told me that document destruction is a routine activity in response to Freedom of Information Act requests that ask for information that could be harmful to the interests of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest leadership." Galvin details a number of phone conversations he says he had with Quisenberry in early February.
"When I asked Mr. Quisenberry if he would testify to what he had just told me, he stated that he would tell the truth and that the Forest Service did not pay him enough to lie," Galvin told the court. Quisenberry did not return calls from New Times. Jay Tutchton, an attorney representing Galvin, says Quisenberry has been conspicuously absent from settlement discussions.
Bob Leaverton--the ecosystem group leader in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in charge of timber, recreation and engineering--says, "There were no documents shredded. And the [Hay Timber Sale] file's complete."
"I'm sure that's all gonna come out in court," Leaverton says, adding that he believes Quisenberry's comments were misunderstood.
Michael Johns, the assistant U.S. attorney representing the Forest Service in the case, says Quisenberry has denied making the comments. He also says no documents were destroyed.
"Even Peter's affidavit doesn't say it's a sure thing," Johns observes. That's true. Galvin simply shares information he says he got from Quisenberry.
Johns says he spoke with Quisenberry and a Forest Service computer expert, and that both told him that internal computer memos were deleted--but only after hard copies were made.
Leaverton denies Galvin's claim that two Hay Timber Sale reports, one each by a wildlife biologist and silviculturist, were missing from the file. Galvin says those reports called for further assessment before the Hay harvest could proceed.
"Frankly, I don't know anything about that," Johns says. "I can tell you that no documents were destroyed. Whether or not they were included in or out of the administrative record is another matter."
Not all reports are necessarily public record, Johns adds.
Tutchton counters, "Even if a document is exempt, you still can't hide it."
The Hay Timber Sale dates to 1980, when the Forest Service first studied the possible impact of a timber harvest. The assessment completed in 1980 has been identified as a "conceptual framework plan," Galvin observes; he says the required studies were never completed to satisfy the requirements of NEPA. Even if they were, he adds, it's been 15 years. "This is a timber sale using antiquated and scientifically repudiated timber-harvest methods, and would almost certainly not be allowed to continue as planned if the proper NEPA analysis were conducted," Galvin says.
Galvin says the absence of a current NEPA study hid the Hay Timber Sale from the public; he learned about it when studying data on the Mexican spotted owl, an endangered species.
Tutchton says, "Because they never did NEPA on this timber sale, the public wasn't aware of it. There was no announcement, no public comment, period, none of the things that normally tell you what is going on."
In a February 14 letter, Arizona Game and Fish Commission Chairman Art Porter explained the Hay Timber Sale spat to Governor Fife Symington. According to Porter, the 1980 assessment was a "broad area analysis" that did not comply with NEPA.
Porter writes, "It is unfortunate that private sector interests may be harmed as a result of law suit based on the federal government's failure to comply with their own regulations."
Leaverton stands by the Forest Service: "We feel that we've done the analysis necessary to do what we're doing."
Lorin Porter (no relation to Art), president of Precision Pine and Timber, says federal rules on protecting owl habitat have forced his company to cut its harvest projections by 25 percent. Now Galvin wants to stop the sale completely, and Lorin Porter says that would hurt his business.
But Precision Pine wouldn't walk away empty-handed. The 25 percent reduction means Precision Pine stands to get a $1.2 million payment from the federal government because a modification in the contract had to be made. And if the contract is canceled, Precision Pine could get as much as $7 million, according to Leaverton and Galvin.
"They're just pissing away public money," Galvin says of the Forest Service.
If the contract is canceled, he contends, it will be because the Forest Service didn't do its homework.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.