GAO Douses Fed Fire-Borrowing

June 2, 2004
10:39 AM
Today GAO released a report titled “Wildfire Suppression: Funding Transfers Cause Project Cancellation and Delays, Strained Relationships and Management Disruptions.” With experts saying that this year’s fire season could be worse than usual, that title alone is troubling. It also supports a view that Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) has been voicing for years about Forest Service and Interior Department decisions involving fuels reduction activities: "For years I have pointed out the failure of the public lands agencies to address what the Administration has called ‘the chaos of transfers.’ Each year we are told that the Administration’s budget request will meet firefighting costs. Yet each year the Administration’s budget request proves inadequate to cover those needs, resulting in the ‘chaos’ of having to transfer money from one account to another to make up for the shortfall. Each year Congress is forced to scramble for emergency appropriations to cover the shortfall and repay other accounts that have been raided to cover these expenses. "The 2004 fire season is well underway -- the Peppin Fire in my home state already has burned 37,000 acres. The fire suppression budget is still short more than $530 million from what was borrowed over the last few years. I’m disappointed that the Administration seems again to have put us on this path to emergency appropriations and more ‘transfer chaos’ this year and next year, too. "This GAO study offers ample evidence that this borrowing routine causes serious problems. Every year, forest health projects that are approved and ready to go are cancelled or delayed when their appropriated funding is suddenly diverted because the fire-fighting account is depleted. The Forest Service and the Interior Department have borrowed nearly $3 billion from various accounts since 1999. This has resulted in poor management of public lands and tense relations with state and local agency partners. "While this year’s budget resolution takes a step in the right direction with regard to fire borrowing, that measure may or may not be enacted, and it may or may not be enough. The real solution is for the Administration to submit realistic budget requests. The West is in a period of long-term drought and the Administration’s budget requests do not accurately or realistically reflect that. That not only hurts programs that reduce the probability of wildfires, it also has the long-term impact of increasing costs for taxpayers.” GAO is the investigative arm of Congress. The study -- GAO-04-612 -- was requested by Sen. Bingaman, Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Rep. Charles Taylor (R-NC) and Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA). It will be available at # # #