ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The federal government lost $126 million in 1998 from logging on national forests, according to a preliminary report released Tuesday by the U.S. Forest Service.
The agency spent $672 million to administer timber sales that generated $546 million in revenue, the report said.
The Tongass National Forest in Southeast Alaska, the country's largest national forest, produced the most red ink, according to the report.
Federal logging in the Tongass brought revenues of $6.5 million in 1998. But it cost the agency $35.6 million to run the Tongass timber program that year.
Logging in Alaska's other national forest, the Chugach, brought in zero revenue but cost the Forest Service $4,000 to administer, the report said.
While a national taxpayer rights group in Washington, D.C., says the figures point to a textbook example of ''corporate welfare,'' a timber industry trade group questions the Forest Service's accounting methods and notes that a large cost of running the logging program comes from fighting environmental lawsuits and preparing environmental reviews.
''It's hypocritical of these people for criticizing the Forest Service timber program when they are the very same people who have driven the costs through the roof,'' said Jack Phelps, executive director of the Alaska Forest Association, referring to environmental groups.
Phelps said the way the Forest Service accounts for road building costs skews the bottom line and makes the losses appear unnecessarily large.
He also said that if the cost of following National Environmental Policy Act guidelines in designing timber sales and the legal expense of appeals and litigation were accounted for separately, then the losses would be nowhere near as large.
Phelps also noted that a new land management plan for the Tongass was in effect in 1998, which further restricted logging and resulted in poorly designed timber sales that were uneconomical and passed over by the industry.
For Taxpayers for Common Sense, however, the report shows that public money and natural resources are being squandered. The group plans to push for reform of the timber sale program in Congress this year.
''This free lunch for the timber industry must end,'' said Jonathan Oppenheimer, the group's forest campaign coordinator.
The preliminary report, called the ''1998 Timber Sale Program Information and Reporting System,'' was distributed to members of Congress on Tuesday, said Forest Service spokeswoman Pamela Finney in Juneau.
Although the report is available on the Internet, none of the Forest Service's field offices ''officially'' had received it, so Finney told the Anchorage Daily News she couldn't comment about the figures.
The final report is expected out on Friday, she said.
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