Testimony

 

Statement of

MARK REY

Under Secretary

Natural Resources and the Environment

United States Department of Agriculture

Before the

United States Senate

Committee on Energy and Natural Resources

Concerning

FOREST SERVICE

FISCAL YEAR 2004 BUDGET

February 13, 2003

 

Mr. Chairman, Senator Bingaman, and members of the Committee, thank you for the opportunity to discuss the President’s Fiscal Year 2004 Budget for the Forest Service.  I am pleased to join Dale Bosworth, Chief of the Forest Service, at this hearing today.

 Overview

 In my testimony, I want to discuss the President’s plans for the Forest Service with particular attention to the Healthy Forests Initiative and the President’s Management Agenda.  However, before addressing these two subjects, I would first like to congratulate you, Mr. Chairman, on assuming leadership of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.  I look forward to working with you and have very much appreciated the support you have given to important natural resource management issues faced by the Forest Service and bureaus of the Department of the Interior.  A brief look back over the last several years clearly shows how your personal involvement and that of Senator Bingaman has provided a focus on managing natural resources today.  This is especially true in the area of protecting the nation’s communities and natural resources from the threat of catastrophic wildfire, a key focus of the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

 In fiscal year 2000, the nation was “awakened” by the catastrophic fire that struck the Cerro Grande area of New Mexico.  I use the term “awakened,” because factors that made this fire so serious had been the subject of expert prognostications for several years.  As the serious wildfires continued into Montana and Idaho later in the 2000 fire season, we were very appreciative of your advocacy for what was, at the time, referred to as the “happy forest” initiative, through which you proposed significant funding increases for hazardous fuels reduction.  It was out of this emphasis that the National Fire Plan emerged.  As the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior developed plans to restore the health of the nation’s forests and rangelands, the Forest Service Cohesive Strategy was developed.  These efforts later evolved into what is now referred to as the 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy and Implementation Plan where federal, state, and local partnerships form a foundation that will lead to improved protection of natural resources and communities. 

 Prior to fiscal year 2000, attention was beginning to focus on the vulnerability natural resources faced from catastrophic wildfire due to the buildup of hazardous fuels.  In the late 1990’s the Forest Service produced risk maps that highlighted what Senator Craig referred to as a big “red blob” in Northern Idaho that represented such a fuels buildup and serious threat to forest health.  Congress responded by authorizing some focused experiments to restore the health and productivity of our forests and rangelands by authorizing the Quincy Library Group activities in northern California and stewardship end results contracting demonstration authority. 

 The catastrophic fire seasons of fiscal years 2000 and 2002, the serious forest health problems highlighted by the risk maps, and the initiatives to address forest health, represent a cornerstone of what is now the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.  I again want to thank you for your role in supporting and developing key aspects of the President’s emphasis.

 Healthy Forests Initiative

 This past August the President announced the Healthy Forests Initiative in order to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfires to communities and the environment.  With the release of the President’s fiscal year 2004 budget proposal, a combination of administrative, legislative, and funding emphases is proposed to address this need.  The Healthy Forests Initiative builds on the fundamentals of multiple use management principles that have guided the Forest Service since its formation.  These principles embody a balance of conservation and wise stewardship of natural resources that are valid today in accomplishing the objectives of the Healthy Forests Initiative. 

 In the near future, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior will re-propose legislation that supports the Healthy Forests Initiative.  These legislative proposals and detailed attention to reducing the burden of unnecessary regulatory and administrative processes that affect management natural resource management, will over time, lead to federal, state and local forests and rangelands that are healthy and productive for the nation.

 The Healthy Forests Initiative will implement core components of the National Fire Plan’s 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy.  Fundamental to this effort is the outstanding cooperation that exists between the Forest Service, Department of the Interior, state governments, counties, and communities in the collaborative targeting of hazardous fuels projects to assure the highest priority areas with the greatest concentration of fuels are treated.  This cooperative effort will not only help protect communities, it can also serve as a model for reducing the morass of appeals and litigation that too often has prevented the efficient and cost-effective execution of projects on-the-ground.  As will be discussed in detail by Chief Bosworth, the President’s fiscal year 2004 budget supports the Healthy Forests Initiative.

 President’s Management Agenda

 In addition to emphasis on healthy forests, the fiscal year 2004 program for the Forest Service provides strong emphasis on healthy government through the President’s Management Agenda.  I will work closely with the Administration and Congress to assure that the President’s objectives of efficiency, performance, and accountability are reflected in Forest Service operations. 

 I would like to congratulate the Forest Service for its significant accomplishment in obtaining, for the first time, an unqualified audit opinion on the fiscal year 2002 financial statements.  This “clean” opinion for the Forest Service and the entire Department of Agriculture is important, although I must also note that this clean opinion is the minimum America’s taxpayers should expect in the management of federal funds.  The Forest Service will have to work hard to maintain this clean financial status.  It will have to further improve its accounting and reconciliation functions, as well as significantly streamline its organization, improve its integration of budget and performance, and improve the public’s access to information through improved technology.  These needs directly respond to the President’s Management Agenda.

 The Forest Service is making important progress in this area.  As discussed in the Agency’s Budget, it is improving its management of human resources by moving forward on competitive sourcing initiatives, realigning functions of the headquarters office, and consolidating financial management operations.  The agency is implementing important e-government reforms, including the new National Fire Plan data base in cooperation with the Department of the Interior.  A new work planning process that will tie to budget formulation and agency accounting systems will be operational in fiscal year 2004.  A process for performance monitoring, reporting, and integration with financial information, called the Performance Accountability System will be implemented in 2004.  Additionally, improved integration that will tie budget and performance outputs to the goals of the Forest Service Strategic Plan will be readily displayed in the President’s fiscal year 2005 budget, which is now being developed at the field level. 

 In addition to the broad goals of the President’s Management Agenda, the agency will improve its accountability in Wildland Fire Management.  The Forest Service along with the Department of the Interior is the most skilled wildland firefighting organization in the world.  However, recent criticism of how the agencies spend funds to suppress wildfire is of great concern to Chief Bosworth and me.  In response to criticisms that occurred during this past fire season, Chief Bosworth promptly dispatched an accountability team to review specific expenses and policies that may have contributed to unnecessary expenditures.  As a result of this and other efforts, new procedures have been established that will focus on “least cost suppression” alternatives in suppressing wildfire and eliminating unnecessary expenses; establish clearer financial management accountability of incident commanders and line officers; and provide for improved internal and external controls and incentives. 

 Additionally, the Forest Service will fully implement performance measures in cooperation with the Department of the Interior that reflect the level of risk reduced by treatments as part of the interagency effort to increase accountability of Federal wildand fire management efforts.

 In implementing these efficiency measures, it is important to emphasize that firefighter safety and the protection of communities will not be compromised.  As we focus on an efficient wildland firefighting organization, we must not lose sight of the fact that fire suppression often is an expensive operation where major costs will be most substantially reduced by accomplishing the goals of the President’s Healthy Forests Initiative.

 Conclusion

 Mr. Chairman, in closing let me emphasize how important the President’s Budget and legislative agenda for the Forest Service is.  The management of America’s natural resources on federal, state, and local lands has been adversely affected by polarized views on either the use or conservation of natural resources.  For many years we have been able to find only very limited middle ground.  Rural economies have been adversely affected by the significant reduction in the production of products and services from these lands.  Communities have been damaged and many more are threatened by the prospect of catastrophic wildfire.  The President’s Healthy Forests Initiative, the National Fire Plan, and legislative initiatives to improve the ability to cooperate with communities, reduce or eliminate unnecessary procedural process, and expand contracting authority are important areas of focus for the Forest Service.  With your help the Forest Service can accomplish a robust performance-based program for the nation’s forests and rangelands, and do so in full collaboration with state governments, communities and Congress. 

 I look forward to working with you in implementing the agency’s fiscal year 2004 program and would be happy to answer any questions.