The Forest Service is acknowledging for the first time that taxpayers are losing money logging national forests, with a memorandum saying that the timber sales last year cost about $15 million.
The admission of loss is likely to intensify the debate over logging on public lands, providing fresh ammunition for budget hawks and environmentalists who oppose commercial logging in the nation's 155 national forests.
Agency officials say the income drop is partly due to a shift to "greener" policies that favor conservation over profits.
The memo is a preliminary accounting of timber harvest expenditures and receipts due to be made public officially next month. The document shows an 11% drop in revenue from the previous year.
"For the first time since we have reported such information, expenditures for the program as a whole exceeded revenues . . . by some $14.7 million," Robert Joslin, deputy chief of the Forest Service, said in the memo.
Other government agencies and numerous environmental groups have long claimed that the government's timber program is a money-loser. A 1995 report by the General Accounting Office showed cumulative losses of nearly $1 billion from 1992 to 1994. The Forest Service, however, has consistently shown a profit, in part because of the accounting procedures, which do not reflect payments to states and other costs.
Environmentalists charged that the agency actually reached the new loss conclusion months ago but kept it secret while Congress debated and narrowly defeated proposals this fall to slow construction of logging roads.
"They've known this since March," said Michael Francis, a former congressional aide now at the Wilderness Society. "They have been sitting on the numbers."
Forest Service officials denied that.
While not commenting specifically on the contents of the memo, Forest Service Chief Michael P. Dombeck said the agency's smaller earnings reflect "important changes in the way we administer our timber program."