TREES FALL, CHIPS FLYHOW MUCH WOOD DID THE WOOD COMPANY CUT ON THE NORTH KAIBAB?
"How does it feel to have a target on your back?" That's what A. Milton "Mickey" Whiting, chairman of Kaibab Industries, asked an Arizona Game and Fish Department supervisor after a March 1991 Game and Fish Commission meeting.
His company was completing a massive and unprecedented freedom of information search on Game and Fish files, trying to compile evidence that that agency was "closely aligning itself with extreme environmental groups." Whiting's company argued that the Game and Fish Department was overstepping its bounds by challenging U.S. Forest Service's timber management.
Clearly, Kaibab Industries was targeting the Game and Fish Department's aggressive environmental stance. And if Kaibab's search resulted in a report that contained little more than the usual chapter and verse of timber company scripture on forest management--that there are more trees than ever, that the forest needs to be thinned, that jobs are at stake--it was a strongly intimidating gesture. Now the target is on Kaibab's back with allegations that its subsidiary, Kaibab Forest Products, repeatedly cut trees beyond the boundaries of approved timber sales in the Kaibab National Forest, which straddles the Grand Canyon.
Environmentalists and some Forest Service employees say federal investigators may be examining whether the Forest Service ignored illegal timber cuts and allowed Kaibab Forest Products to avoid making expensive but mandatory improvements to logging roads.
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Company officials say they know nothing about such allegations; federal officials, including those in the Forest Service, refuse to comment. However, the Department of Agriculture's Office of the Inspector General has investigated Kaibab Forest Products' activities in the national forest. A report on the investigation was sent to U.S. Attorney Linda Akers in Phoenix in mid-June. Officials at Akers' office say details of the report will not be released until mid-August.
Kaibab Forest Products has downplayed the investigation. "As far as we know, 'timber theft' is too strong a word," says Don Olson, president of Kaibab Forest Products. "We inadvertently cut some trees." He says the number could be "100-plus" and attributes it to human error in operating the giant machinery the company has used to cut trees for the last three years. Furthermore, he asserts that Kaibab reported the error as soon as it was discovered. "We'd like to pay our fine and get on with it," he says.
Though the Office of the Inspector General will not elaborate on the scope of the allegations, it is more serious than "some trees." "If the Forest Service told us that one or two trees had been inadvertently cut, we would have told them to handle it," says Tim Danaher, assistant regional inspector general in the San Francisco office of the Agriculture Department.
Sources close to the investigation and witnesses on both sides of the environmental fence say the allegations go back several years. "The Forest Service has been giving it away up here," says one former Forest Service employee who asked not to be identified. "It's indicative of events that go on throughout" the country.
"They're expecting us to believe this was a trivial incident," says Sharon Galbreath, a Sierra Club representative in Flagstaff who has walked the site of the disputed timber cut. "The way the cutting unit is marked, it would be impossible to understand how they could have violated them for so many years."
Both the Forest Service district ranger and forest supervisor who were in charge at the time the alleged overcutting took place have been transferred from the Kaibab National Forest. Both deny any knowledge that an investigation took place. But the Sierra Club's Galbreath asserts that the Forest Service would have to know about the violations. "Somebody wasn't doing their job," she says.
"Either somebody was in on it or turned the other way," says a current Forest Service employee, who also asked not to be identified.
No one wants to go on the record for fear of repercussions. Stephen Carr, who was a Forest Service surveyor for 15 summers, claims he was threatened for alerting Agriculture Department investigators about the alleged road-use fraud. He also claims he overheard threats aimed by Forest Service employees against Game and Fish habitat specialists. Carr dismisses the threats as "redneck talk," but the anonymous voices reflect the closed timber community on what's commonly called "the North Kaibab." Kaibab Forest Products is the only timber company that operates there and is a major force in the economy. It's a small world: "The timber markers and the Forest Service inspectors all have the same last names," says Carr.
The family feuds extend to the highest circle of forest players. Mickey Whiting's son Gordon is chairman of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, "stuck in the middle," as he says in the debate between Kaibab Industries and the Game and Fish Department. Gordon Whiting emphasizes that he takes himself out of all Game and Fish matters that involve Kaibab Industries, and by all accounts from Game and Fish employees to the Sierra Club, he is a straight shooter who is not afraid to hold opinions different from those of the family business.
"Being professional means that you don't side with one party or the other," Gordon Whiting says. "You row your own boat." For example, Commissioner Whiting opposed this year's Senate Bill 1053, the private property, or "takings," act, which environmentalists fear will allow extractive industries like timber and mining companies and cattle ranching to sidestep environmental regulations. Kaibab Industries supported the bill and signed a "love letter" advertisement to Governor Fife Symington in the Arizona Capitol Times thanking him for signing it. Gordon Whiting's brother Bruce heads ACCORD, the Arizona Citizen Coalition on Resource Decisions, which lobbied on behalf of SB 1053.
Gordon Whiting's presence on the Game and Fish Commission didn't slow Kaibab Industries late in 1990 when it demanded access to Game and Fish Department files under provisions of the Arizona Public Records Law. Kaibab broadly requested "all correspondence, memoranda, internal studies, minutes of meetings," regarding endangered species, information exchanged with environmental groups, how wildlife habitat is affected by timber harvesting and other timber issues, and even passenger manifests of airplanes flown over national forests.
"It was extensive and of considerable cost to the agency," says Bob Weaver, state habitat coordinator for the Game and Fish Department. Kaibab sent several employees at a time to comb records in the Phoenix, Pinetop and Flagstaff offices, tying up 475 man-hours for the Game and Fish Department and making copies of more than 4,100 documents, more than 60 photographs and six audio tapes. When Game and Fish balked on releasing minutes of staff meetings, Kaibab Industries took the agency to court and lost.
A resulting report from Kaibab Industries to the director of Game and Fish, Duane Shroufe, was a rebuttal to an earlier Game and Fish "white paper," both of which covered the same polarized eco-argument. Mickey Whiting stops short of admitting it was a show of force. "It was a wake-up call that we were going to insist on good science," he says. But whose science is "good science"?
The Kaibab report pointed to a Memorandum of Understanding between the Forest Service and Arizona Game and Fish Department that stipulated that the Forest Service has final jurisdiction over wildlife issues in national forests and that the Game and Fish Department is expected to cooperate with that agency. It singled out letters from Game and Fish personnel to Jim Norton of the Wilderness Society as proof of collusion. Ironically, the environmentalists were tipped off that the search was in process; the Sierra Club and two smaller environmental organizations filed Freedom of Information requests for duplicates of all documents copied by Kaibab Industries.
Environmentalists even turn up in the Forest Service. One of the documents that emerged in the Kaibab search was a letter to the Flagstaff office of Game and Fish that was signed by an organization that identified itself as "the Kaibab Gang."
"As employees of the Forest Service," it began, "we walk a very fine line when it comes to outside involvement in environmental matters which directly relate to the Kaibab. Nevertheless, it seems to us that many of the interested groups working to limit the cut on the Kaibab are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to seeing through the faulty numbers and the confusing paper trail left by beleaguered forest managers. These boys and girls are pros and they have one goal alone: Get out the volume. And as a result, what they say and what they do are oftentimes quite different. So unless you folks take the [environmental assessments] and go out and check each unit on the proverbial ground, you are never going to get a handle on this beast."
John Goodwin, a habitat specialist in the Game and Fish Flagstaff office, claims this letter caused an uproar between Kaibab Industries and the Forest Service. Both of those entities deny ever hearing of the Kaibab Gang. Even those Forest Service employees who are critical of their agency's forest management policies are reluctant to confirm the existence of a "gang."
The current allegations against Kaibab Forest Products that the U.S. Attorney is mulling over are the latest skirmish in the timber-environmental rift. Says Mickey Whiting, "I would truly love to see us all sit down together and work this out." Perhaps it will be done in court.
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