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House Subcommittee on Appropriations for Interior and Related Agencies

U.S. Forest Service Hearing 3-10-99

Opening statement by Chairman Regula:

Welcome Mr. Dombeck. We all have a number of issues that we will want to discuss today. Before we hear from the Committee members, I?d like to discuss the misguided priorities in your budget request and then focus on your accountability and accounting problems.

It seems to me that you have an odd budget request in which the basic needs of maintenance and safety of the national forest system are being neglected, but large increases are being requested for various State pass-through programs, new land acquisition, and research.

Your agency has been the focus of tremendous Congressional attention. You certainly are a popular target! This is because of the priceless resources under your stewardship, a remarkable heritage of scenery, habitat and natural resources for all of America. It is clear from all of this attention that most people agree that there is lots of work to be done:

You have a tremendous backlog in deferred maintenance. Between the 400,000 miles of roads and thousands of bridges and campgrounds, and numerous other facilities, there is a need for billions of dollars. Yet the request has decreases for facilities maintenance and road reconstruction, and the increase for roads maintenance still leaves that program funded at only 25% of the annual need. Your natural infrastructure is also at risk. We hear that about 40 million acres are at risk from insects and disease, and 50 million acres are at risk from wildfire. There is a huge need for on-the-ground action to treat these forests, but your budget has program decreases for fuels treatments and for forest vegetation management, and a large decrease for timber sales, including stewardship sales which enhance over-crowded stands.

The service you provide for wildfire prevention and suppression is tops and is something that America still relies on you for. Yet, your request for wildfire preparedness is down to 67% of the most efficient level. Your sister agencies at the Department of the Interior have requested funding to support 85% of the most efficient level: why is your budget lagging so far behind? How will you work together in a true interdepartmental manner when funding levels are so different?
Won?t this low preparedness result in larger wildf ires, with larger losses of life, property and habitat?  Your budget request also slashes the forestland management program, asking for a reduction of $30 million, about 15%.  Isn?t it prudent to use careful, environmentally sound timber sales as a tool to help thin those forests that are over-stocked from decades of over- zealous fire prevention?

The recreational demand on national forest system lands continues to grow, and the backlog in both unmet needs and deferred maintenance also grow. This administration claims it wants to emphasize recreation, but the budget request has level funding for recreation management, an effective program decrease of $4 million. And, even more striking and harder to explain, the trail construction request is down more than 50%.

Let?s look for a moment where you have put your resources in this budget request. Certainly it is not timid, it has an overall increase of $172 million over the FY 1999 enacted level. Of this large increase, $53 million is for State purchases of easements and USDA rural business loans. The rest of the increase is largely accounted for by increases of $37 million for research programs, $23 million more for road programs, and $23 million more for fish and wildlife habitat. You are also asking for $118 million for outright land purchases. These increases eat-up just about all of your requested budget increases, yet the budget justification says that the overall uncontrollable fixed cost changes for the agency are $72 million. This suggests that many Forest Service programs will suffer declines from their current services level.

The joint hearing we held last year on your fiscal problems and performance was indeed disturbing. We see that you?re making aggressive efforts to get your house in order, and we support that. We will support prudent measures, but we are not so keen on getting a clean accounting opinion as to turn all employees into accountants or turn all budgeting into simple- minded systems that are easy to balance but make no sense for the resource or give up all Congressional control. We welcome the opportunity to work with you to reform budget structures. I?m sure that you?ll agree that much more needs to be done. This is why I requested the National Academy of Public Administration study on your fiscal and budget situation.

The budget request before us asks for level funding for needs, even though your statement indicates that more resources and time are needed to fix the accounting and the agency. Level funding general administration produces a program decrease of $5.7 million due to fixed cost increases. We?ll be impressed if you can fix your huge accounting problems with fewer resources. What we fear, you will further assess other program funds, thereby further reducing the money that gets to the field to do work that helps fix the land and waters, service the public, and assist communities.
The budget request also includes reference to $111 in savings that are said to come from several legislative proposals that will be delivered to the Congress later, once you staff them out. We certainly support realistic savings, and the Committee has investigated various revenue generating and cost recovery activities in our February 10 hearing. Yet, we are quite nervous that your trust fund administrative cost savings will come merely by holding back other unrelated FY 1999 funds and using this carry-over next year for administrative purposes. This is unacceptable. We will work with you to clarify definitions for overhead and indirect costs, and to limit these administrative needs to reasonable levels, but we expect FY 1999 funds to be used as appropriated and signed into law by the President.

It seems to me that with this budget request you are neglecting your basic mission of taking care of the land and serving people.  You should first take care of the national forest system before you try to tell all forest owners what to do and how to manage their properties. You should take care of basic public service, recreation, habitat and wildfire needs before you try to buy large additional tracts or help the States purchase scattered conservation easements. You should put some of your scarce resources into maintenance of your extensive facilities, forestlands and streams. We will work with you and your staff to provide a bill, within the limited resources that may be available, to take care of real priorities and provide real service to the taxpayers. The national forests and grasslands are far too valuable to be neglected due to arguments on style or short-term political gain.

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