Construction, land acquisition and staffing down considerably

While the total federal budget President Donald Trump proposed earlier this month increases about $100 billion from the current fiscal year 2017-18, which ends Sept. 30, the U.S. Forest Service’s total proposed appropriations declines almost half a billion.

Cooperative work with state and private forests, management of the National Forest System, capital projects and land acquisition all were reduced substantially. Land acquisition was virtually eliminated and capital work reduced $266 million, from about $360 million this year and last year to $95 million for next fiscal year.

The president’s budget document describes these cuts as “… meaningful forest management reforms to strengthen our ability to restore the Nation’s forests and improve their resilience.”

The proposed staffing level of 27,800 full-time positions is nearly 17 percent fewer employees for the Forest Service in FY 2018-19.

Within the operational funding, the recreation, heritage and wilderness account was reduced $22.6 million. The Forest Service justification document stated that the Forest Service will “[be]… increasing volunteerism, improving customer service, increasing partnerships and working to ‘right size’ recreation assets. This will encourage new businesses to support outdoor activities which will translate to jobs in rural communities and increase spending by visitors to the national forests.”

The wildlife and fisheries habitat, grazing, and mineral and geology management accounts were all reduced about 15 percent. Planning and inventory accounts were eliminated but those resources reassigned among the remaining programs.

The proposed National Forest System FY 2018-19 budget is $170 million less than in 2017-18, but still $200 million greater than in 2016 or 2017.

The only increase was about $190 million for wildfire funding. Funding for suppression work equals the 10-year-average cost suppression. The proposal also includes language for an “emergency cap” for funding. This will allow funding in excess of the suppression appropriation.

The justification document says the cap will be similar to how unanticipated-funding needs are handled in the budget for other natural disasters. Congress has been working on this issue for several years.

Several reports from the Congressional Research Service have suggested that the current funding mechanism when suppression costs exceed the appropriation have had a detrimental affect on other Forest Service programs. That happens because funding for these programs has to be transferred to suppression. Congress does not always fully re-appropriate the transferred funding.

The Forest Service budget also cancels $65 million authorized in 2015 for a large airtanker. It also proposes to use private sector sources for helicopter support, thus enabling the elimination of the Coast Guard’s helicopter support. Despite these changes, the document assures that resources are available for large airtankers, helicopters, hot shot crews and smoke jumpers to support all initial-attack operations.

The consequence of the reduced construction funding is a focus only on high priority health and safety work, but the maintenance backlog remains unchanged and “some facilities may have access restricted due to unaddressed safety issues.” This caution also applies to forest roads and trails.

While the budget proposes $71 million for road maintenance (a $100-million reduction), facilities and trails are set at $11 and $12 million, respectively, or a total $125 million cut along with a staffing reduction of more than 850 positions.

The complete funding and staffing for land acquisition was eliminated in order to “focus on the maintenance of existing National Forest System lands in FY 2019, which currently comprise about 30 percent of the Federal estate,” according to the document.