It's been a long time since Jim Caswell had to muck out an outhouse. But he may well have to now. Caswell, supervisor of the Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, says his staff is hard-pressed to get everyday work done because of budget cuts. To save money he's discontinued all training and travel and canceled all purchases. He has left vacancies for permanent positions unfilled. He even laid off every permanent employee for five days of the fiscal year, hoping they would pick up work on fire detail.
"Bottom line, we will go deficit," wrote Caswell in a memo to his regional forester. "Resource work will not get done and future programs are going to suffer."
As the summer winds up, forest supervisors across the West are running out of money. With few funds to hire seasonal workers, full-time, upper-level employees are cleaning outhouses and campgrounds and clearing trails. Forests are calling in volunteers and even prisoners to do the work.
The Flathead National Forest in Montana, which usually thins up to 700 acres of overgrown forests each year to reduce wildfire hazards, canceled all its pre-commercial thinning contracts. Another forest quashed range projects, including fence construction to keep cows away from streambeds, water-source development and noxious weed control.
The intense fire season is making things worse by drawing sparse human resources away from home forests.
Surprisingly, the problem is not a shortage of funds agency-wide. Congress allocated $3.6 billion to the Forest Service for fiscal year 2000, up 2 percent from the year before. But more of that money is staying in Washington, while regional offices and individual forests get a smaller slice of the pie.
"I'd compare the forest financial situation to fiscal virga," says Bruce Kulesza, supervisor of the Ashley National Forest in Utah. "We see the money dropping from the cloud, but it never reaches the ground."
The common perception that the Forest Service's current money woes are the fault of Congress is only partly correct.
Part of the reason forests are singing the greenback blues is the "graying of the workforce," says Acting Budget Director Hank Kashdan. The Forest Service is dominated by older employees, whose higher salaries take a bite out of the budget. Three years ago, the agency spent 61 percent of its total budget to pay its employees. This year, it will spend 70.2 percent of its total budget for that purpose, about $232 million more than in 1997.
There are other reasons, too. While many regional budgets have decreased, the coffers of the Washington office are full. In 1998, 16 percent of the total Forest Service budget remained at the Washington office. This year, 23 percent ($667 million) of the total budget stayed there, about $144 million more than in 1999.
The shift toward keeping more money in Washington is also due to pressure from Congress. In 1997, when the Forest Service couldn't pass an audit, legislators warned the agency to get its books in shape. Kashdan says the cleanup is under way, but it requires a tremendous amount of money -- money that otherwise would have gone out to the forests.
"Now, when Congress asks us how much money we spent on a specific project, we can tell them," he says. "We couldn't do that before, because our records were completely inconsistent."
Better bookkeeping -- and better planning -- should eventually make it easier to get money out to the forests, says Chris Wood, senior advisor to chief Mike Dombeck. "The budget process in Congress has become an annual political football game. We realized we needed to do something different, that we needed more aggressive national leadership on some festering issues."
With national priorities clearly spelled out, as well as the steps the agency will take to achieve them, the Forest Service should have better luck convincing Congress to provide funding, Wood says.
But spelling out the national priorities that are championed by the Clinton administration has also created a drain on regional budgets. Chief Dombeck has been steering the agency away from selling timber to caring for land, water and wildlife, and providing recreational opportunities.
Dombeck and his staff have come up with a list of "national initiatives" and "Chief's earmarks" that includes protecting roadless areas, restoring watersheds and installing an agency-wide computer system. The roadless initiative alone has cost the agency $7.6 million this year.
"We're responding to the fact that people want us to be more careful stewards," says Wood. "With that shift in philosophy we need to be willing to make financial investments in the land that won't pay for themselves in the short-term."
Some supervisors agree with the philosophical shift, but complain that the agency is moving too quickly.
"I don't think they have a good understanding of what it does to a forest," says Galen Hall, budget director of Region One, which encompasses North Idaho, Montana and the Dakotas. "We're forced to live on an annual appropriation, yet try to manage the forests for generations to come. When the core of the organization has to suffer, it throws us into turmoil."
Wood assures agency staffers that this summer's sacrifices will be worth it in the long run.
"Any system of change, no matter what it is, is always going to cause stress in an organization," he says. "The new emphasis on planning has lost us some money that might have been appropriated to the field. But eventually it will lead to more resources going to the ground." F
This story was first published by High Country News (www.hcn.org), which covers the West's communities and natural resource issues from Paonia, Colo.