Call Collett: Tons of trees cut illegally on public lands represents loss of government revenue

A News 2 investigation uncovers government employees falsified reports and failed to follow through on inspections leading to tons of trees being cut down and removed from the Francis Marion National Forest. The theft of these trees represented untold amount of money lost by the government.

You’ve heard the saying, “money doesn’t grow on trees”, but in South Carolina, trees are big business. Forestry is one of the largest industries in the state with a nearly $19 billion impact and more than 90,000 jobs.

When trees in the Francis Marion National Forest, a publicly owned land maintained by the Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service,  are harvested, the money is used for forest improvements along with road maintenance and returns to Berkeley and Charleston Counties.

Earlier this year, News 2 received a tip the program of logging trees was mismanaged, and our government was missing out on cash from contracts to harvest the trees.

FOREST SERVICE INVESTIGATION

Through a records request to the Forest Service, we learned problems were first noticed by employees in 2008.  An agency audit identified problems in 2012.  It would be 2013 before a formal, internal review spotted falsified reports on the logging program, missing inspections of contractor logging activities, and an over-all “hands off” approach by management.

Once the internal investigation began, investigators noted documents started disappearing. Ultimately the investigation found the contracts between the Forest Service and the loggers weren’t being enforced, and hundreds of trees were being harvested without being paid for.

“They don’t have any respect for the land,” Ronnie Morris, who lives on land inside the forest, told News 2.  He says the health of the forest has been declining for years.

“This forest looks worse than it did two days after Hugo,” he explained, pointing to the dozens of road closed because they haven’t been maintained around the forest. Money from the logging contracts funds road maintenance.

According to the internal investigation from 2013, not made public until News 2’s request, the full extent of theft of trees from the national forest isn’t known, so the loss of revenue can’t be fully calculated.

Staff noted problems on at least six sites within the forest, but the investigators say they were unable to determine the extent off theft from those sites because of a lack of man power.

The report noted truck loads of trees were being removed from the forest without being weighed, and at times those trucks were overloaded, putting undue stress on our roads and creating a danger to other drivers.

Following the investigation, more revenue was delayed as timber harvests were stopped to reevaluate the program and hire new staff. Logging has only recently resumed.

The forest service declined an interview but told me in a statement:

“The staff involved in the timber program are almost entirely new since the time of this investigation. The District Ranger and staff are committed to implementing the new Forest Plan.”

Investigators found there wasn’t enough evidence to support criminal charges, but the Forest Service spokesperson told News 2 employees involved in the timber program were held accountable internally.  Liquidated damages and road maintenance deposits were also assessed, billed, and one logger paid roughly in $11,000 fines.

The long term impact of over harvesting will impact the health of the forest for five decades, according to the report.

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