USDA inspector general finds Forest Service mismanaged

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USDA inspector general finds Forest Service mismanaged national fire plan money

By KATHERINE PFLEGER

Associated Press Writer P>WASHINGTON (AP) --

The Agriculture Department's inspector general has questioned how the Forest Service spent $2.5 million in restoration funds from a billion-dollar national wildfire plan.

The audit report looked at a sample of forests in the West to see how the unprecedented federal wildfire spending package was managed. The report concluded that the agency isn't providing adequate oversight to ensure funds intended to restore forest habitats are being spent appropriately.

Mark Rey, the Agriculture undersecretary who oversees the Forest Service, said the agency has fixed most of the problems since the inspector general raised them in the report last month.

The Forest Service couldn't provide officials to comment on specific issues Wednesday.

The report questioned the propriety of spending restoration funds for planning timber sales in Montana and providing permits to harvest mushrooms at six national forests in the West. Mushrooms sometimes grow abundantly after fires.

Additionally, funds that were supposed to be used for restoration projects after fires in 2000 instead were spent on projects from the 1998 blazes in Montana's Lolo National Forest. In the report, the Forest Service said necessary accounting adjustments remedied the problem.

Congress approved the national fire plan in the fall of 2000, after wildfires charred more than 7 million acres of public and private lands, an area roughly the size of Maryland.

The Forest Service received $1.1 billion for the 2001 budget year and had to move quickly to handle the influx of new money. The dollars went to a host of uses, including hiring more personnel, buying equipment, removing hazardous fuels from forests and completing restoration work after fires.

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group, said the findings in the inspector general's report outline another instance of the Forest Service trying to pull the wool over taxpayers' eyes.

"In this one case, the (inspector general) was there to raise the flag," said Jonathan Oppenheimer, the group's forest analyst. "It raises the question of how many other cases there are."

The example that particularly troubled him involved Montana's Bitterroot National Forest, where managers planned to use part of a $1.8 million fund from the national fire plan's restoration accounts to set up commercial timber sales. The report concluded that didn't qualify as restoration.

The forest's staffers said they were borrowing the money from the accounts until they received funding to set up the timber sales. However, the inspector general said the staff didn't keep track of how much of the money went toward timber sales.

In responding to the report, the Forest Service said it will review a sample of rehabilitation and restoration projects paid for under the national fire plan to make sure they meet the plan's criteria. It will also clarify the criteria for projects that can receive fire plan money.

For instance, Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told the inspector general's office that he would consider changing the criteria to allow mushroom harvest permits to be included as restoration work since the size of the crop is sometimes a significant management problem.

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On the Net:

Read the report: http://www.usda.gov/oig/auditrpt/08601-26-SF.pdf
 

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