Behind those beguiling public-service ads featuring Smokey the Bear and his woodland friends lies an unpleasant story of bad management. For more than 10 years now, the United States Forest Service has been promising everybody - itself, its parent Agriculture Department, and Congress - that it would get its act together. But recent testimony by the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, reveals inability to collect revenues, inefficiency, and outright waste that have cost taxpayers "hundreds of millions of dollars."
The Forest Service often doesn't get fair market value for goods. Private concessions - resort lodges, marinas, guide services - aren't paying what they should. The service doesn't collect enough from rights-of-way for pipelines, power cables, and communications wires. Instead of sealed bids for timber sales, it relies on oral bids, losing some $50 million a year.
The agency has done little to reduce costs. A 1995 internal report showed it was losing up to $100 million a year from inefficient decision-making. It took 10 years and $13 million simply to revise the management plan for Alaska's Tongass National Forest. It loses money because it often doesn't comply with environmental and planning requirements.
Its financial statements are unreliable and it can't account for millions in spending. Weak contracting practices put $443 million at risk of waste, fraud, and abuse. Field offices don't comply with federal purchasing regulations. In fiscal 1995, the service couldn't figure how it spent $215 million of its $3.4 billion in operating and program funds. It doesn't know what its assets are worth or the actual value of its multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog. Amazingly, its four-year-old computerized accounting system can't cope with the Year 2000 problem.
The GAO estimates it could take 10 years to fix the basic problems. The time to start is now. The White House, the agriculture secretary, and Congress's oversight and appropriations committees must act. The Forest Service should be held accountable if it doesn't improve - soon. Senior personnel should be replaced if progress isn't evident. Congress must structure the service's budget to get results. America's precious forests and the wildlife they shelter - a resource that belongs to us all - deserve no less.