Forests on a forced diet

Hungry Washington office keeps Forest Service funds from reaching the ground

 

It's been a long time since Jim Caswell had to muck out an outhouse. But this summer, he may well have to. Caswell, supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, says his staff is hard-pressed to get everyday work done because of budget cuts. To save money he's discontinued all training and travel and canceled all purchases. He has left vacancies for permanent positions unfilled. He even temporarily laid off every permanent employee for five days of the fiscal year, hoping they would pick up work on fire detail.

"Bottom line, we will go deficit," wrote Caswell in a memo to his regional forester. "Resource work will not get done and future programs are going to suffer."

As the summer rounds out, forest supervisors across the West are running out of money.

The Flathead National Forest in Montana, which usually thins up to 700 acres of overgrown forests each year to reduce wildfire hazards, canceled all its pre-commercial thinning contracts. Another forest quashed range projects, including fence construction to keep cows away from streambeds, water-source development and noxious weed control.

With few funds to hire seasonal workers, full-time, upper-level employees are cleaning outhouses and campgrounds and clearing trails. Forests are calling in volunteers and even prisoners to do the work. The intense fire season is making things worse by drawing sparse human resources away from home forests.

Surprisingly, the problem is not a shortage of funds agency-wide. The problem is that more of the agency's money is staying in Washington, while regional offices and individual forests get a smaller slice of the pie.

"I'd compare the forest financial situation to fiscal virga," says Bruce Kulesza, supervisor of the Ashley National Forest in Utah. "We see the money dropping from the cloud, but it never reaches the ground."

An agency under the gun

The common perception that Congress has the Forest Service on a starvation diet is only partly correct. Lawmakers actually allocated $3.6 billion to the agency for fiscal year 2000, up 2 percent from the year before.

Pressure from Congress, however, has forced the agency to keep more of that money at the home office. In 1997, when the Forest Service couldn't pass an audit, legislators warned the agency to get its books in shape.

"Now when Congress asks us how much money we spent on a specific project, we can tell them," says Acting Budget Director Hank Kashdan. "We couldn't do that before, because our records were completely inconsistent."

But getting the books cleaned up has required a tremendous amount of money, he says, money that otherwise would have gone out to the forests.

So while the Washington office has been flush with funds, many regional budgets have decreased. In 1998, 16 percent of the total Forest Service budget remained at the Washington office. This year, 23 percent ($667 million) of the total budget stayed there, about $144 million more than in 1999.

Better bookkeeping - and better planning - should eventually make it easier to get money out to the forests, says Chris Wood, senior advisor to chief Mike Dombeck. "The budget process in Congress has become an annual political football game. We realized we needed to do something different, that we needed more aggressive national leadership on some festering issues."

With national priorities clearly spelled out, as well as the steps the agency will take to achieve them, the Forest Service should have better luck convincing Congress to provide funding, Wood says.

"In the future you'll see the budget process remarkably more efficient than it was in the past," he says. "Congressional riders will largely go away, and the cleaner budgets will be rendered to the field sooner."

Leadership takes money

But spelling out the national priorities which are championed by the Clinton administration has also created a drain on regional budgets. Chief Dombeck has been steering the agency away from selling timber to caring for land, water and wildlife, and providing recreational opportunities (HCN, 11/8/99: The Forest Service sets off into uncharted territory).

Dombeck and his staff have come up with a list of "national initiatives' and "Chief's earmarks' that includes protecting roadless areas, restoring watersheds and installing an agency-wide computer system. The roadless initiative alone has cost the agency $7.6 million this year.

"We're responding to the fact that people want us to be more careful stewards," says Wood. "With that shift in philosophy we need to be willing to make financial investments in the land that won't pay for themselves in the short-term."

Some supervisors agree with the philosophical shift, but complain that the agency is moving too quickly.

"I don't think they have a good understanding of what it does to a forest," says Galen Hall, budget director of Region One, which encompasses northern Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. "We're forced to live on an annual appropriation, yet try to manage the forests for generations to come. When the core of the organization has to suffer, it throws us into turmoil."

Wood assures agency staffers that this summer's sacrifices will be worth it in the long run.

"Any system of change, no matter what it is, is always going to cause stress in an organization," he says. "The new emphasis on planning has lost us some money that might have been appropriated to the field. But eventually it will lead to more resources going to the ground."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Forest Service acting Budget Director Hank Kashdan, 202/205-0987;
  • Art Johnston with the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees, 715/762-5112.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Mark Matthews

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