Leroy Lee passed away today at his home near St. Maries, Idaho.
Leroy was one of those people you don't meet every day: as a timber stand examiner -- a seasonal position with the U.S. Forest Service, and one of the lowliest positions that agency offers -- Leroy Lee cracked open what was probably the biggest scandal ever to hit the Northern Region of the Forest Service.
Sometime in the late 1980's Leroy started noticing that the numbers he was using in his timber stand exams weren't adding up, and he gradually became suspicious that the Forest Service was keeping two sets of books. Persistent and thoughtful investigation paid off, and he was finally able to prove it, igniting what came to be called the "Phantom Forest" scandal. Leroy showed that the Forest Service was pretending to have more trees on the ground -- and thus more trees available for logging -- than they actually had. And by a wide margin. His work was groundbreaking because almost nobody but a timber stand examiner even knew how to read the data, and most timber stand examiners don't stay up too late scratching their heads about what is happening back at the office.
But Leroy did. The reason his discovery created a scandal is that it revealed that the Forest Service was deliberately cooking its books when it applied to Congress for funding each year. On the Kootenai National Forest for example, 75 percent of the clearcuts on the ground registered as standing forests on the books. So Congress, in the dark about what existed on the ground, kept right on funding more logging. And the Forest Service kept right on using that funding to log more trees and build the wonderful road system that saturates our formerly valuable National Forests.
You can read more about his accomplishment here, in an excellent article from Sierra Magazine from 1992. It details Leroy's investigation and the Congressional hearing that followed. What it doesn't mention is the fallout: to this day, the Kootenai National Forest is still getting hit with lawsuits that stem from Leroy's incredible work over a decade ago. Leroy busted up on his own, as a poorly-paid grunt, what no army of professional conservationists could even touch.
So Leroy, wherever you are: way to go, brother. You didn't pass on without leaving a dent.
Update: An excellent piece on Leroy's life with comments by many of his friends is here. (Spokane, WA Spokesman Review.)