Fire and reign 

Does the Forest Service need a new home?

Fire and money emerged in headlines across the Rocky Mountain West last week as the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee battled over the president’s 2009 budget proposal, which would deepen cuts to the U.S. Forest Service’s already over-stressed resources.

As the debate heated up, Colorado Republican Sen. Wayne Allard suggested that the solution lay in a change of address for the Forest Service—which might be dealt a better hand if it moved from the Department of Agriculture to a new home at the Department of Interior.

There, the agency might be protected from what seemed to be “unequal treatment,” including steeper budget cuts than other agencies, Allard posited.

The proposal, preliminary as it was, sparked big reactions up and down the Rocky Mountain front.

For western Monta-nans, who had an up-close view of some of the nation’s most treacherous fires last year, the issue hit close to home. In Missoula—home to the Forest Service’s Northern Region Headquarters, the Missoula Smokejumper Base and nearby Lolo Hotshot crew—many reacted to Allard’s suggestion with skepticism.

Against this backdrop, the issue of moving the Forest Service has quickly become a hot topic.

“We’re in desperate need of a larger scale review of land management,” says Martin Nie, associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana and author of The Governance of Western Public Lands: Mapping its Present and Future. The national land management planning process is in disarray, carried out by multiple federal bureaucracies, Nie explains. Add to it the unending debates over roadless areas, sharp budget cuts, and the fact that half the land management budget goes to fire fighting, and Nie says you’ve got some major systemic issues to address.

The money problems are the most glaring indication of trouble, observers say. Under the current administration budget proposal, the Forest Service in 2009 would get $4.1 billion, nearly 15 percent below 2008 levels, with 12 percent cuts in critical programs such as firefighter readiness—at a time when the West faces increasingly devastating fire seasons.

So how would moving the Forest Service under the Department of Interior solve anything?

Interior Department agencies like the National Park Service are no better funded than those in the Department of Agriculture, notes Steve Woodruff, deputy director at the Northern Rockies office of Western Progress, a progressive think tank. “The national parks have been starved for funding over the years, and they have millions in backlogged maintenance needs,” he says. Still, the idea of relocating the Forest Service is well worth the public’s attention, he adds.

“It’s not a non-issue,” Woodruff says, pointing to the many times the idea has been raised, from the 1970s and ’80s to the 1990s. Periodic discussions about consolidating national land management into one federal agency can be helpful because they allow us to “re-examine these agencies’ roles,” he says.

Some critics, for example, say it’s never made sense to keep the Forest Service in anything but the Department of Interior. The Forest Service’s own founder, Gifford Pinchot, raised the issue 103 years ago, when the agency was placed in the Agriculture Department.

“The status-quo isn’t exactly rational,” says Nie, who says budget politics and logic make consolidation an attractive idea.

At the state level in places like Montana, for instance, all land management matters–from firefighting and grazing leases to timber sales—fall under the purview of one agency, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. As needs changed, it made sense to have a singular bureaucracy managing state-owned natural resources.

In similar ways, the Forest Service has morphed over the decades into an agency that manages not just a public resource, but also the public. Interior Department agencies like the Bureau of Land Management, Fish Wildlife and Parks, and the U.S. Park Service are taking bigger roles as recreation managers, Nie says. The Forest Service is, too, which leads some people to believe it should join the others in Interior.

Bitterroot National Forest Supervisor Dave Bull offered some common concerns. “One argument people make is that keeping the Forest Service under the Department of Agriculture will keep the Forest Service from becoming a more political entity,” he said, echoing fears the agency would become too high-profile, like its cousin, the U.S. Park Service. Park Service chiefs, Bull explains, are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, unlike Forest Service chiefs, who rise through the civil service ranks.

Woodruff also sees the difference, observing a “huge cultural difference between the two agencies.”

“There is a tradition of appointing U.S. Park Service chiefs that are lightning rods for controversy,” he says, citing James Watt, the Interior secretary under President Reagan, and Gale Norton, who held the post under George W. Bush.

“If one secretary of the Interior controls everything,” as Nie puts it, “be careful what you wish for.”

For Bull, the Forest Service’s autonomy becomes another key issue, specifically when fires and budgets come into play. As forest supervisor, Bull says he enjoys more oversight over his own budget, has a greater say in the day-to-day operations of the forest, and has a more direct hand in wildland fire suppression than his Park Service counterparts.

For now, no one need worry or rejoice. Autonomy, funding, and the moving of the Forest Service are issues that will have to wait another day—or even another year. After Allard floated his idea, he punted and said he’d let the Government Accounting Office study its feasibility. That report could be finished in late 2008, just in time for consideration by the 2009 Congress.
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