WASHINGTON -- Federal investigators have concluded the Forest Service acted properly in felling hazardous trees in the Giant Sequoia National Monument, bringing to a quiet end a probe loudly sought by congressional Democrats.
Capping a politically sensitive, nine-month investigation, the Agriculture Department's Office of Inspector General dismissed complaints about logging that took place near the monument's Trail of 100 Giants. Environmentalists and their Capitol Hill allies had suggested the tree removals violated multiple federal policies.
"Our review did not substantiate the six allegations presented and related concerns," the investigators stated, adding that the Forest Service acted "to improve public safety."
The investigators twice traveled to the 327,769-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument, a center of controversy and litigation ever since President Clinton established it in 2000. They found that none of the felled trees were beloved giant sequoias. They also determined the Forest Service followed public notice and environmental review requirements.
"The Forest Service generally complied with all applicable laws, regulations, policies and agreements that were in effect," the investigators stated.
Some of the Forest Service rules themselves, though, remain a work in progress and subject to some future revision.
The new report was requested by three House members who serve on the powerful subcommittee that funds the Agriculture Department. The House members, in turn, were responding to complaints initially raised by advocates with Save America's Forests and Sequoia Forestkeeper.
The environmentalists contended the Forest Service unnecessarily cut more than 200 protected trees in 2004, thereby benefiting a local sawmill. The specific complaint echoed more general attacks on the Bush administration's environmental policies.
"If the Bush administration did authorize the chopping down of protected ancient trees in a national forest, then one has to wonder how much longer it will be until the White House starts auctioning off marble slabs from the Lincoln Memorial," Rep. Maurice Hinchey. D-N.Y., declared in a news release last October.
The seven-page Office of Inspector General report was submitted to Hinchey and other House members Aug. 7 but made public without fanfare on the inspector general's Web site this week. Spokesmen for Hinchey and Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat who also requested the investigation, could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
The Forest Service actions in question began in 2004, when the agency targeted some 130 dead or dying trees for removal. A Forest Service specialist subsequently concluded an additional 74 trees should be removed because they, too, were potentially hazardous.
The Forest Service determined, and investigators agreed, that the tree removals in the national monument could proceed without a formal environmental review in order to protect public safety.
Investigators further determined that some current Forest Service rules -- for instance, requiring complete descriptions of trees slated for removal -- weren't in place at the time of the Giant Sequoia logging. That meant the 2004 logging didn't violate the rules in place at the time.
The investigators did note the former Forest Service chief testified inaccurately when he told Congress an environmental study was completed prior to the logging. The investigators did not criticize this inaccuracy, having concluded the agency's overall actions were proper.
"We are pleased with the results," Forest Service spokesman John Heil said Wednesday. "It shows we are doing the right thing."
The completed audit, though, does not resolve all of the questions concerning Giant Sequoia National Monument management. Pressed by one lawsuit, the Forest Service is now preparing a new management plan for the monument.
In October, moreover, the Supreme Court will weigh in on a case shaping future related logging decisions. The Earth Island Institute, Sequoia Forestkeeper and other environmental groups successfully challenged a 238-acre salvage logging project proposed for the neighboring Sequoia National Forest, which the Forest Service contended was exempt from standard environmental review. The high court's eventual decision could affect when logging decisions can be challenged.