Forest Service stands its ground in dispute with Greenville logger
Randy Pew said he needs a check from the U.S. Forest Service soon or his logging business will perish.
He said he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a Forest Service fire sale salvage operation.
But Pew’s chances of getting a government refund appeared even less likely last week after the Forest Service revealed the results of a third-party review.
A review by a Forest Service timber inspector from Oregon found that the Forest Service’s original cruise estimate of harvestable timber from the 2007 Moonlight fire was 98 percent accurate in terms of volume.
The review contradicted Pew’s claim that the amount of timber, particularly valuable cedar, was substantially less than Forest Service reports had originally estimated.
The Forest Service has traditionally measured its cruise accuracy by the total volume of harvestable timber available. Under those established guidelines, its cruise was accurate.
The values of various timber species tend to fluctuate depending on market conditions.
The cruise review did find the incense cedar was about 10 to 15 percent less than the Forest Service’s original estimate. And it acknowledged that most of the smaller cedar trees — which made up more than 25 percent of the total cedar — had deteriorated by the time Pew began the helicopter logging four years after the fire.
Pew has maintained that the amount of incense cedar was as much as 90 percent less than the Forest Service estimated. He added that by the time Pew Forest Products began the costly helicopter logging last summer, most of the smaller cedar trees were worthless.
As a result, he said he’s more than a million dollars in the hole and on the verge of bankruptcy. Pew said he has been selling his logging equipment to buy some time.
Pew submitted a claim to the Forest Service in August, asking for half of the $751,450 he said his company lost in the initial phase of the salvage operation, called the Cairn sale.
“I just asked for enough money to pay the people I owe,” Pew said.
But Forest Service contract officer Elaine Gee rejected Pew’s claim Oct. 13.
The contract officer works independently in the Forest Service hierarchy. Although the officer accepts outside input to help formulate a decision, the decision is ultimately hers.
In rejecting Pew’s claim, Gee stated that it was his responsibility to cruise the timber before making his bid.
“Purchasers have a duty to make their own volume estimates and not rely on Forest Service estimates when developing their bids,” Gee wrote in the rejection letter to Pew. “By signing the bid form, you acknowledged and agreed to terms and conditions.”
After the Oct. 13 rejection letter, Pew said he met with Gee and “bled all over her desk” in hopes that she would change her decision on his claim.
“After talking to (Gee), I thanked her for her time and asked her to let me know when she had made her decision,” Pew said. “Then she hands me a piece of paper (again rejecting the claim). She had already made her decision. She didn’t care what I had to say.”
Gee said she did care what Pew had to say. “But he didn’t supply me with any new information. Since he didn’t provide me with anything new, I gave him the decision that had already been rendered.”
Gee said Pew has two options. He can file an appeal with the Civilian Board Court of Appeals, or do a federal appeal. He has until Friday, Jan. 13, to file the appeal with the civilian board.
Pew said he hadn’t decided whether to file an appeal. He said the process would take a long time and wouldn’t solve his immediate problem.
“There are many cases before the board that have taken 10 years to settle,” Pew said.
He can also file a claim with the Forest Service for the helicopter portion of the salvage operation, which he said resulted in even more losses for his company. Pew’s August claim was for the roadside and tractor portion of the salvage.
Pew emphasized the Forest Service’s own cruise review Dec. 16 found that the cedar volume was less than originally estimated.
The review by U.S. Forest Service Region 6 Claims Forester Steve Nelson stated, “Incense cedar defect was most likely underestimated by 10 to 15 percent.”
Nelson’s report also found “The incense cedar appears to be more variable across the sale area than the major species. The sampling error just for incense cedar is estimated at 34 to 37 percent, compared to 13 to 18 percent for the rest of the species.”
The report added that by the end of 2010, Pew Forest Products had removed 98 percent of the estimated volume from the roadside hazard area and portions of the tractor and skyline areas.
Nelson noted that by the time Pew Forest Products requested to harvest the helicopter areas in 2011, the volume per acre was 55 percent less than the 2008 cruise projected.
He said there was “significant deterioration” because it was four years after the fire.
However, Nelson found that the Forest Service cruises “were done properly. Published deterioration guides were used appropriately. Sampling errors for the total volume were well within our cruise guidelines.”
Forest Service meetings
Pew has met with Forest Service representatives at least four times in the past two weeks.
He was scheduled to meet with Regional Forester Randy Moore Monday, Jan. 9, in Vallejo.
Three of Pew’s meetings have included Plumas National Forest Deputy Supervisor Laurence Crabtree.
Although Crabtree reminded Pew that the cruise was ultimately Pew’s responsibility, the two agreed on some of Pew’s complaints: particularly the lack of cedar.
“Our measure of success in a cruise is total volume,” Crabtree said. “Maybe that’s not going to work for the future. But that’s how we have operated.
“But if we have species (like cedar) that are more valuable, maybe we should put more effort into cruising them.”
“At least get a better way to figure out the deterioration rate,” Pew added.
Pew’s son Jared asked Crabtree, “So do you think the Forest Service did everything right? And it’s just tough luck for us?”
Crabtree, who has worked with the Pew family for years, said he has been “awake nights” trying to come up with a solution.
“I’m thinking about this situation all of the time,” he said to Jared. “If I’m not talking to Randy, I’m thinking about the things he has said to me.
“This is still an active contract between Randy and the (Forest Service) contract officer. Anytime I get an idea, I’ll either call Randy (Pew) or Elaine (Gee). But I’m outside the sphere of that contract.
“The Forest Service does not want to see your company collapse, Randy,” Crabtree said. “We know how much you have done for us.”
Pew said he bid on the Cairn sale because he trusted the Forest Service’s cruise estimates. He said that in 30 years of working with the Forest Service, he usually harvested more timber than the Forest Service predicted.
Pew said part of the reason the Cairn cruise came up short was that the deterioration was factored for two years instead of three.
“I had no reason to question their cruise, because they have always done such a good job,” Pew said.
“But I’ve never been involved in a timber sale that had 8 million feet of cedar in it. I will say that is one thing that we didn’t have a lot of experience in. If we had an 8 million foot cedar sale in the past, we would have probably known that the Forest Service’s way of cruising it is wrong.”
Supervisors support Pew
County Supervisors Robert Meacher, Jon Kennedy and Lori Simpson have attended meetings between Pew and the Forest Service to support the logger’s cause.
Meacher and Kennedy joined Pew in a Dec. 22 meeting with Regional Forest Service Deputy Dan Jiron in Vallejo.
Kennedy said he didn’t think Jiron and the Forest Service representatives at the meeting were listening.
“I saw them pretending to hear what we had to say, and then saying what they had to say,” Kennedy said. “That meeting was, in my opinion, a complete patronization. I think it yielded nothing. But the fight’s not over.”
Meacher backed up Kennedy’s impression of the Vallejo meeting.
“We just sat there with our jaws dropped,” Meacher said. “By their own admission, 75 percent of the cedar wasn’t there. The cruise was off. But they don’t have to deal with it because of their policies and procedures.”
Simpson attended a meeting a week later in Quincy. She said she felt the Forest Service was listening. But, like the meeting with Jiron, it didn’t lead to any solutions.
Sen. Feinstein responds
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein responded to a Nov. 22 letter from the Plumas County Board of Supervisors asking for her help.
The senator didn’t provide any ideas for a solution. But she made it clear she is concerned about the potential impact 30 lost jobs would have on Greenville’s economy.
Feinstein said in a Dec. 30 letter, “I am deeply concerned about potential job losses and am eager to help in whatever way I can as a United States senator.”
Feinstein said a member of her staff has been in contact with Pew to discuss the results of the Forest Service review and to discuss “options for remedying the situation.”