GAO: Forest Service reforms have changed little

The Forest Service's 1995 budget reforms have not had a significant impact on the way the agency is managed, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

Despite the goals of the 1995 reforms, the Forest Service has not improved its budget accountability, according to the report ("Forest Service Management: Little Has Changed as a Result of the Fiscal Year 1995 Budget Reforms," RCED-99-2). GAO found that the agency's budget structure is based on resource-specific activities such as managing timber sales and fighting wildfires, while its strategic goals and funding priorities are more broadly stated. For example, the Forest Service states its highest mission as "restoring and protecting forested systems."

Instead of having a large pool of funds to support broad agency goals, "a forest or district office may have to use up to 24 different funding sources to implement a plan," according to the report. Although the 1995 reforms called for the consolidation of line-item appropriations so that Forest Service managers would have more flexibility in deciding where to spend funds, GAO found that field offices operate as if the reforms never occurred.

GAO also noted that the Forest Service still has trouble identifying which program will benefit most from a particular project. As a result, funds charged to one program may be used to support other programs. In addition, expanded authority to move funds between line items without congressional approval was rarely used, the report said.

The 1995 budget reforms were prompted by a National Performance Review study citing the Forest Service as an example of an agency whose budget structure hampered effective management and used taxpayer dollars inefficiently.

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