Doing more with less

ESCANABA — I had the privilege of sitting as a participant in a regional meeting of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The entire USFS Eastern Region is based out of Milwaukee, Wis., and covers a span from the Mississippi River easterly along the northern U.S. boundary and southern edge from Missouri and West Virginia and onto the East Coast. It is a complex recipe of varying lands with many separate characteristics in need of unique management, with a common group of passionate professionals charged with the duty of maintaining these lands in the public interest.

A strong point of emphasis made at our meeting was that government does not own any land. The USFS charged to manage this public land on behalf of the citizens of the United States, who are the true owners.

The USFS has met with extraordinary economic challenges in the last decade. The frequency and expanded measure of lands being consumed by wildfire on federal lands is huge. Predictions for the future are that things will most likely get worse. Firefighting is very expensive and is funded through the USFS general budget, which is a main cause for the ongoing disruption of service.

The cost of fire suppression a couple years ago had grown to consume 56 percent of the total budget. Last year it grew to 60 percent and in the next few years, if not amended, will grow to occupy 67 percent of all appropriations. The annual fiscal budget appropriated by Congress has been flat. It is scheduled for a slight increase this year, but to date there still has not been any progress in the long term resolution to assure adequate funding to maintain essential operations yet support the growing cost of fire suppression. Instead, the budget lists a shuffling of numbers to give the impression that fire fighting costs are being maintained.

The 2018 USFS Budget Overview states that the Wildland Fire Management budget is $2.495 billion, a decrease of $708 million below the 2017 annualized Continuing Resolution funding level. At face value this appears to be a savings for the general fund however, in reality it is a shift of accounting where fires suppression costs are charged to another expense category:

“(There is) an increase of $259 million to Preparedness Funding to improve accountability at both the national and regional level. The Forest Service is strengthening its financial accountability and increasing predictability in its budget planning and execution process. Starting in FY 2018, Forest Service firefighters will charge all base hours (the first eight hours of each day) to Preparedness and, when fighting fires, charge any hours over eight per day to Suppression. This funding honors a 2002 commitment to implement joint Forest Service/Department of the Interior business rules for budget planning of base eight-hour expenditures. This funding increase was shifted from the Suppression program where it was historically charged.

(It includes) an increase of $247 million to Suppression funding to fully fund the 10-year average expenditure for suppression operations. In 2018, the 10-year average is $1.057 billion. When compared to the 2017 budget, this seems like a reduction because the 10-year average was rebased. However, since base eight-hour expenditures will be charged to Preparedness, the 10-year average was recalculated with those expenditures removed from the last 10-years of expenditure data.”

In simple terms, money appears to have been shifted from one pocket to the other.

One measure to improve accomplishing statutory obligations dealing with natural resources management has been provided to the USFS through the 2014 Farm Bill, an act that created a section call the Good Neighbor Authority (GNA).

The GNA allows the partnering of the USFS with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) Forest Resource Division (FRD) to handle forest management needs, especially timber sales. On the good side, it accomplishes the need to properly rotate forest stands and reduce to possibility of fires due to high risk from old antiquated forests. It does produce timber sale revenue; however it does not bring those dollars back to the USFS budget.

In facing the other challenges of being able to provide core services with continued low staffing, the USFS has employed a concept called Cadre, which is a group of trained or otherwise qualified personnel capable of forming, training, or leading an expanded organization. Here in the Hiawatha National Forest, the USFS has been building on the concept, mostly internally, and is seeking to involve more of the public for the long term effect (a Cadre Collaborative). This group would deal with proposals from a broad spectrum of users to streamline the decision process especially in relation to special use permits. It is perhaps the only true silver lining to a gray cloud.

Another strong possibility of resolve in performance (doing more with less) is to employ a standard in removing redundant paperwork. If a state agency such as the MDNR Designated Motorized Trails Program meets the USFS standards for use, then the annual maintenance performed by the trail sponsor organizations should be allowed provided they meet the criteria expected of the sponsors. It is a program titled “Programatic” and similar to Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) currently in place. It would still require notification of scheduled work so that no conflicts of area use would occur, but the re-examination of land use would be waved based on previously approved use criteria.

These are but a few of the items discussed at the USFS Eastern Regional Decision making meeting. It truly demonstrated the passion the USFS staffs have as a part of their “we can always do better” side. It was also an indicator that a major revamping of the federal budget needs to take place, much like is done within the MDNR in establishing specific restricted accounts that cannot be diverted (robbed from Peter to pay Paul), to keep adequate staffing and assure availability and access to our lands.

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Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Trails & Tales Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.

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