REPUBLICAN, DEMOCRAT COMMITTEE LEADERS URGE ZERO FUNDING INCREASE FOR FOREST SERVICE, EXPRESS STRONG CONCERN OVER FOREST HEALTH AND MAINTENANCE
In a letter sent to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Young (R-FL) and Interior Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Ralph Regula (R-OH), Agriculture Committee leaders from both sides of the aisle urged appropriators to provide no increase for new programs and to focus U.S. Forest Service funding on areas of critical importance to forest health.
According to the GAO "inefficiency and waste throughout USDA's Forest Service's operations and organization have cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars," and the agency is "still far from achieving financial accountability and possibly a decade or more away from being fully accountable for its performance. In January of 1999, the General Accounting Office added the Forest Service to its list of agencies at 'high risk' of waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement due to the unreliability of the agency's financial statements.
"Given this track record, we have serious reservations about the agency's request for an increase of $172 million in discretionary funding over the FY99 enacted level," the Members wrote. "Congress should not increase taxpayer contributions to an agency that is unable to safeguard public investments."
Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck has testified before Congress that forty million acres of national forest are presently at an unacceptable risk of catastrophic wildfire, while twenty-six million acres are at high risk of insect and disease infestation. In addition, deferred road reconstruction and maintenance total an estimated $8.4 billion, and unattended maintenance on recreational facilities exceeds $1 billion.
"We strongly believe that the highest resource management priority of the Forest Service should be to use existing funding and management tools to address the growing restoration and maintenance backlog within the national forest system," the Members wrote. "This backlog jeopardizes the ecological integrity of our forests and their ability to provide a full range of benefits to the taxpaying public."
Rather than addressing these crises, the proposed Forest Service budget promotes a number of new initiatives and programs that have little or nothing to do with managing the national forest system to reduce the backlog and, in fact, compete with backlog reduction for priority emphasis. Chief among these is a proposal to spend $118 million — nearly 70% of the requested funding increase — for the acquisition of new federal land.
"The Forest Service should not expend scarce taxpayer dollars to acquire more federal land at a time when it is unable to appropriately manage its existing land holdings," the Members wrote. "We urge you to table the agency's land acquisition proposal for now and, instead, direct funding toward resource management programs and activities that reduce the restoration and maintenance backlog and improve public use and enjoyment of our national forests."
Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX), Ranking Member Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), and Subcommittee Ranking Member Eva Clayton (D-NC) signed yesterday's letter.