The U.S. Forest Service is an agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) that manages 193 million acres of forest and grassland, conducts research, and works with non-federal partners to manage, protect, and develop forest land in nonfederal ownership. The Forest Service has an annual budget of more than $5 billion – nearly half of which is directed towards wildland fire management.
The GAO conducted a performance audit of the budget execution process of the United States Forest Service from August 2016 to January 2018 and identified “deficiencies in the Forest Service’s processes and related controls over allotments, unobligated no-year funds from prior years, administrative control of funds, fund transfers, reimbursable agreements, and available funds from deobligation of unliquidated obligations.”
One of the findings that GAO made is that the Forest Service did not have the systems to ensure that they followed Congress’s direction on how to spend appropriated funds. For example, in Fiscal Year 2015, Congress provided $65 million for the Forest Service to spend on next generation airtanker fleet. However, $35 million of that was used for other purposes. Another example is that the Forest Service failed to create a budget line item for the $75 million that Congress directed them to spend on a Forest Inventory and Analysis Program.
Another budget process failure identified by GAO is that the Forest Service was not reviewing unspent balances for continued need. Most of the Forest Service’s funding is the form of “no-year appropriations,” meaning that they can carry it forward from year to year. GAO noted that “such reviews, if performed, may identify unneeded funds that could be reallocated to other programs needing additional budgetary resources.” As of September 30th, 2016, the Forest Service had $351 million in unobligated no-year funds, some that were originally appropriated in 1999! Congress has since required the Forest Service to begin reporting on unobligated balance on a quarterly basis.
The GAO also determined that the Forest Service has not developed a comprehensive system for administrative control of funds that considers all aspects of the budget execution process. This means the Forest Service “cannot reasonably assure that (1) programs will achieve their intended results; (2) the use of resources is consistent with the agency’s mission; (3) programs and resources are protected from waste, fraud, and mismanagement; and (4) laws and regulations are followed.” Further, the Forest Service had not been updating their manuals and guidebooks in accordance with their 5-year review policy, meaning some instructions could fall out of date with updated practices and procedures.
GAO determined that “these deficiencies increase the risk that the Forest Service may make budget requests in excess of its needs.” GAO made 11 recommendations to which they got a one paragraph response from the Forest Service.
In Fiscal Year 2015, Congress provided $65 million for the Forest Service to spend on next generation airtanker fleet. However, $35 million of that was used for other purposes.
As of September 30th, 2016, the Forest Service had $351 million in unobligated no-year funds, some that were originally appropriated in 1999.