Editorial: Forest Service needed better budgeting

Published Sep 4, 2013 at 05:00AM

The U.S. Forest Service, still apparently struggling to balance its books in the face of sequestration, has come back to Oregon with a new demand. Send us $400,000, it told the state, in addition to the $3.6 million you already owe us. This time, take the money from funds that had been set aside for use on forest restoration.

It’s the second time since the mandatory budget cuts enacted by Congress went into effect March 1 that the Forest Service has told Oregon counties it wanted some of its money back. The cuts, in Oregon $4 million in all, come from money sent in the 2012 fiscal year under the Secure Rural Schools Act, the creation of Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

The $400,000 is a drop in the $100 million bucket of cash Oregon counties received in fiscal 2012, to be sure. But it and the remaining $3.6 million come from a section of the law that aims to finance badly needed restoration projects and, Wyden believes, Oregon is being asked to pay more than its fair share.

We’re of two minds about the whole issue.

On one hand, it’s difficult to believe that Forest Service officials understand their own budgets so poorly that six months after sequestration began, they’re still unsure of what they believe the states owe them.

Sequestration was no surprise — it had been discussed for months, and the prudent course would have been to plan ahead and give the states and the counties within them time to plan for any shortfall.

At the same time, while we believe a healthy dose of restoration projects is part of the prescription to reduce devastating wildfires in the West, this is one time that we believe cuts here are better than the alternative. Cash-strapped counties like Curry and Klamath will not be forced to return Secure Rural Schools funds dedicated to local fire prevention efforts, and that is a small blessing.

In this case, what is good for the counties today may hurt the forests in the long run, unfortunately. It is an unhappy trade that better planning should have been able to avoid.