October 19, 2000
12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. - Chairman Frank H. Murkowski asked today why no action has been taken by the Clinton Administration to address the liability that the Forest Service faces after breaking timber contracts. “This problem has existed from the moment the Administration walked in the door with a bias against forest management, and a ‘wood chip’ on its shoulder about the U.S. Forest Service,” said Murkowski. Each year, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) award thousands of contracts for the removal of timber from public lands. Since the early 1990's, the Forest Service and BLM have suspended or canceled timber sale contracts for a number of reasons. These include their own changing interpretations of the requirements of the National Forest Management Act of 1976, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, or the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Both the Forest Service’s and BLM’s timber sale contracts contain provisions describing the liability that the agencies will incur if they cancel a sale or cannot successfully negotiate a modification with the purchaser. As a consequence of increasing concerns over the extent of liability being incurred by one or both of the agencies, the Subcommittee on Forests and Public Lands Management asked the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) to address the situation. Specifically, they were asked to determine what amounts and types of damages have been awarded to purchasers and how the Forest Service and BLM pay for the damages. Currently the Forest Service has settled claims and paid out more than $168.5 million, coming mostly from the Federal Judgment Fund. The GAO also estimated what potential damage amounts are pending against the two agencies. While BLM has limited potential liability, the Forest Service faces a staggering $1.6 billion in additional contract claims. This amount is almost equal to the entire Forest Service budget for one year. “Normally in the face of a rapidly deteriorating situation such as this, the lack of concern or the failure to develop a plan of action to deal with the problem would be grounds to charge incompetence. In this case however, I believe we are dealing with total indifference, with a touch of malevolence,” the Chairman said. “Simply stated, no one in this Administration cares about this issue because the financial impact of the liability will be the next Administration’s problem. And if the Forest Service is financially crippled as a consequence of the impact of its budget – well, the Forest Service was a thorn in the side of the Clinton White House anyway.” ###