Every national forest in Utah loses money in its timber sales, with the 1987 deficit reaching $1,563,000 for forests mainly in this state.

"So what?" says the U.S. Forest Service.The Wilderness Society has attacked the agency over the timber sales that lose money on 76 of our 120 national forests. The group points out that in the Intermountain Region, only Caribou National Forest, Idaho, made money, while the total loss for the region was more than $16 million.

For most timber sales, the costs of roadbuilding and the salaries, equipment and vehicles for Forest Service professionals to prepare sales, outweigh money paid by the lumber companies for the right to chop trees.

The society estimates that nationally, timber sales cost taxpayers an average of $406 million every year between 1982 and 1987.

When George Bush takes over as president and looks for ways to trim the federal budget deficit, said The Wilderness Society's president, George T. Frampton Jr., "he should begin with the wasteful and environmentally-damaging boondoggles like below-cost timber sales."

The rundown for Utah national forests in 1987 was: Dixie, $1.3 million in timber receipts, $2 million in expenditures by the Forest Service, 31 million board feet harvested; Fishlake, $124,000 timber receipts, $332,000 expenditure, 4 million board feet; Manti-LaSal, $84,000 receipts, $414,000 expenditure, 5.6 million board feet; Uinta, $167,000 receipts, $338,000 expenditure, 9.7 million board feet; Wasatch-Cache, $582,000 receipts, $766,000 expenditure, 24 million board feet.

"But in essence that's not the point," said Wallace T. Shiverdecker, public information officer for the Intermountain Region, Ogden.

"As an agency in the Department of Agriculture, we do not have a mission or a charge in our charter or in the laws that govern and regulate the Forest Service to make a profit. That has never been set up as what the Forest Service is supposed to do."

Mick Kissel, timber fire staff officer for Ashley National Forest, Vernal, added that fighting the giant blazes that roared through the woods this summer wasn't a profit-making activity, and neither is recreation or many other duties of the Forest Service.

"There's a basic belief that there's a higher purpose for having the Forest Service and for selling timber, and for providing other goods and services from the public lands," Shiverdecker said.

"Agriculture (the Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service) has a lot of objectives that are focused on rural America, helping to develop and support families in rural America."

Although a report on cash flow shows the Forest Service losing money, two other reports - on jobs created and income generated in communities - are positive. Among the benefits of timber sales are job stability in small towns.

"That doesn't mean that the Forest Service couldn't operate with a profit motive, but the laws would have to be changed to do it," Shiverdecker said.

"If that happened, we would have to take a serious look at all the other goods and services provided from the national forests. Recreation does not make a profit. Livestock grazing does not make a profit."

He said the Forest Service's driving philosophy is that the public has certain rights on the public lands. "It's a public benefit, then, something that government should provide."

Mike Medberry, Utah representative of The Wilderness Society, said the report is significant because "the Forest Service is finally recognizing that they're losing money hand over fist on their timber harvest program. And that's true in Utah."

Medberry said it makes no sense to have a large timber harvesting program when the Forest Service not only loses money but allows the destruction of important wildlife, natural and aesthetic values.

I'd be the last to complain about the government losing money in services to people; government is supposed to help.

Plenty of intangibles are involved in timber sales, and they're not easily measured. You can't do it by counting dollars.

The Forest Service must consider the overall benefits and costs to the public, weighing many factors. Where forests can't grow back quickly enough to reuse the same tracts, and sales encroach more and more on other values, they may not be justified.

It's not money but competing uses that matters most.

Still, let's remember all this red ink the next time some private enterpriser who's using our land comes out against wilderness.