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Six of Idaho's 10 national forests lost money on their timber sale programs last year, according to a U.S. Forest Service report.

The Payette, Sawtooth, Challis, Targhee, Salmon and Nez Perce national forests lost more than $5.67 million in 1987, despite record harvests."The return to the government can be as little as $1 for every $20 spent," said Walt Minnick, president of T.J. International Corp., and a Boise conservationist. "The magnitude of the deficits is often hidden, but if the public knew the extent of the subsidy, they'd be outraged."

However, a big gain in the Panhandle National Forests helped the Forest Service post a statewide profit on timber sales of almost $5.2 million, according to the first public appraisal of timber programs in the agency's 80-year history.

The report was released this month.

Idaho conservationists contend below-cost sales are a waste of taxpayer money and carry unacceptable environmental risks. They particularly cite the potential damage from carving roads into pristine watersheds, wreaking havoc on blue-ribbon trout streams and destroying elk habitat.

But timber industry officials and their supporters, including Sen. James McClure, R-Idaho, do not concede that any timber sales are below-cost.

They say a change in accounting practices to spread out road-building costs that also benefit other forest activities would make all the sales profitable. Eliminating the sales, on the other hand, would destroy small, mill-dependent towns, sharply reduce federal payments to counties and schools and cause massive layoffs.

"It's a totally contrived argument using a phony accounting system that does not allocate the total benefits to the forest program," McClure said.

Nationally, the Forest Service made about $4 billion on timber sales in 1987 while harvesting a rec-ord 12.7 billion board feet. In Idaho, the agency's sales totaled 806.5 million board feet.

The Panhandle forests made a profit of $8.5 million. The Clearwater made a $1.8 million profit, the Caribou almost $175,000, and the Boise almost $31,000. But the Targhee National Forest lost $2.54 million, the Salmon $1.3 million, the Sawtooth more than $437,500, the Challis almost $258,400, the Nez Perce $202,000, and the Payette $89,200.

Truman Puchbauer, timber staff officer for the Boise National Forest, said the Forest Service sells timber because it is required by law to offer a balance of programs, and no programs are required to return revenues to the U.S. Treasury.

"Viewed strictly as a business enterprise, it's true that it's not good business to offer below-cost sales," Puchbauer said. "But there would be substantial impacts to communities and workers if we cut them out completely.

"We try to strike a balance where the negative values are not too great."

As president of T.J. International, formerly Trus Joist, Minnick heads a company that is a steady user of wood products, manufacturing window frames and other structural building materials. But while he supports a strong wood products economy, he sees no harm in abolishing below-cost timber sales.

"I think my primary concern is that in an era of $150 billion budget deficits, the government shouldn't be losing money when competing with private industry in an activity where there's no shortage of supply," said Minnick, who was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under former President Richard Nixon.

The Forest Service is ignoring the simple business rules of profit and loss, he said, particularly when considering the environmental devastation that results from road building and logging.

"Most of the forests that lose the most are in the greatest area of tourist attraction. The recreation values in these areas are extremely high," he said.