Local logger says Forest Service felled him
“So long, and thanks for all the memories,” might be what Randy Pew will be saying to the community this time next week, if nothing happens to save his family business, Pew Forest Products.
The business is teetering on bankruptcy.
Pew blames the Forest Service for mathematical and surveying errors in its timber cruise data, which bidders use to determine whether or not a job will be profitable enough to bid on.
The Forest Service blames Pew for depending on its accuracy and not checking conditions for himself.
If Pew, the largest private employer in Indian Valley, does go bankrupt, 30 people will be out of jobs. Given Plumas County’s unemployment rate, these employees will probably have to leave the county to find work, taking their children with them and further reducing enrollment in Plumas County schools.
“It is unfortunate that this situation arose at this time when jobs are desperately needed, particularly in small rural communities, and when the economics associated with timber harvesting are very challenging,” said Laurence Crabtree, deputy forest supervisor.
“Many employees and their families grew up with two generations of Mr. Pew’s family; this is a distressing situation for all of us.”
Some employees have been with Pew almost since his family started in business 36 years ago; otherwise, the average length of time with the company is about 15 years.
Some of his workers are between 50 and 60 years old, and Pew said he feels badly knowing there is no real job market here for them if he shuts down.
Pew has written down the pertinent details in what he’s titled “The Moonlight Cairn Sale Papers,” an eight-page document he has delivered to more than 40 local businesses and individuals in the past three weeks.
Timber sale background
Originally, the Cairn Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project in this area of the 2007 Moonlight Wildfire was three separate timber sales advertised in 2008: the Rattlesnake, the Bear and the Eagle.
Pew was high bidder on all but one, but threats of legal action by environmental groups stalled them.
They were later combined into the Cairn and re-advertised in 2009.
Pew reviewed the sale possibilities again.
The rates requested by the Forest Service were too high, though, according to potential bidders, and there were no bids on the project after 30 days.
Rates were reduced and prospective bidders were then given about a week to respond.
Forest Service timber sale bid/offer paperwork includes several buyer-beware clauses.
For example, when bidders sign, they acknowledge the offer is based on their own examination, independent of any Forest Service estimates.
This warning is restated in different ways more than once.
At the end of the document, bidders must agree not to blame the Forest Service for any mistakes or negligence regarding estimates.
Pew had already studied the possibilities twice, and assumed the figures listed by Forest Service personnel were close enough to accurate, so he made his bid.
He’d successfully completed five such major fuels reduction projects on the forest in the past eight years, with good results and what he felt was good teamwork with the Forest Service.
Crabtree agreed: “Randy Pew and Pew Forest Products have successfully harvested timber from thousands of acres of the Plumas National Forest resulting in reduced fuels and healthier forest stands.
“We need businesses like his to treat stands in the future as we continue to reduce fuels and restore forest ecosystems.”
Forest personnel had always given conservative estimates about the timber volume available, Pew said. However, the Forest Service makes it clear that estimates are intended to provide general information only, and are not legally binding.
Pew’s crews usually harvested more than what was estimated, and a better harvest meant more of a profit was possible.
So Pew was confident in the estimates, until after work was well under way and volumes fell short, he says, by much more than the agency directive of 20 percent margin, or rate, of error.
What Pew allegedly found was more like an 80 percent error, in the negative.
After reviewing the data, the Forest Service claims that the estimates were within the allowable margin of error.
The agency also says Pew raised no concerns with the sale at the time.
According to the Forest Service, Pew was allowed to harvest an additional 35 “subject to agreement” units in 2009-10, which yielded nearly four times the volume of timber originally bid on.
The biggest shortfall was in the only profitable timber in the sale, Pew said: the cedar.
If he’d known that at least 80 percent of the expected cedar wasn’t going to be there, he said, he would not have bid on the project.
“We brought all the cedar to the landing,” he said. “The Forest Service was there and told us which logs were cull and which were saw, or good.”
The cull logs were sold off more cheaply as firewood and the merchantable saw logs went to the mill.
In denying his claim, the Forest Service said he left merchantable timber, including cedar, behind.
Mt. Hough District Forester Joe Smailes was one of two officials who spent three days in the Moonlight area in early August, studying mainly the helicopter and skyline-logging units, where access by traditional logging equipment is difficult and/or undesirable.
He used non-random points of reference to make findings in a report that claims that overall, Pew left a “significant volume” of merchantable timber behind.
“They told me what to do,” Pew said. “They were out there with us every step of the way. They told us to leave those trees behind, often due to the steepness of the slopes.
“Every unit, be it tractor, skyline or helicopter, has been approved by the Forest Service for utilization and has been signed off,” Pew said, shaking his head. “We took all available merchantable logs.”
The margin for profit is slim enough in the modern forest job, said Pew, and to have a shortfall of almost $800,000 means he will go out of business if the Forest Service doesn’t meet him halfway, with about $376,000.
“I just want enough to pay the people I owe money to,” Pew said of mainly local businesses he’s worked with for many years. “I did not ask for the whole amount of the shortfall.”
Forest Service Claims Officer Elaine Gee took the full 60 days to reject his claim.
“Forest Service staff at the forest and regional levels has thoroughly reviewed Mr. Pew’s concerns regarding the timber volume estimates for this sale and have determined that the estimates met accepted standards of accuracy and are valid,” said Crabtree.
“Additionally, Mr. Pew’s signed bid indicated he had accepted the responsibility to make his own volume estimate in order to develop his bid.”
According to the Forest Service, Pew may appeal the denial of his claim to the Civilian Board of Appeals, or he may bring action directly in the United States Court of Federal Appeals.
Plumas County District 2 Supervisor Robert Meacher, who represents Indian Valley, blasted Forest Service actions at a meeting Nov. 1.
“The agency has signed off on the fact that there was 80 percent loss in certain spots, but they are still denying the claim,” Meacher said. “And the way the Department of Justice works is the forest supervisor, the staff — they can’t do anything to mitigate it once the claims officer has made a decision.
“We’ve lost the Forest Service out there,” Meacher said. “Since I’ve been in office, we’ve lost two mills, a hospital and now Pew Forest Products.”
Pew said his family would lose everything, including their homes.
What’s at stake for the community is an annual loss of about $2 million in local payroll.
“That will be the end of the school, if something’s not done,” Meacher added.
In response to his lambast, Meacher said he was told the Forest Service would allow Pew to present more evidence in his favor.
“The facts do not add up,” Meacher said after speaking with another Forest Service official. “The cost of the cruise, the inventory in that cruise compared to what was actually out there was so far off the mark.”
Meacher added that he’d have “hell to pay” if he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars like that and then had such faulty results.