Forest Service:

Review of the Alaska Region's Operating Costs

RCED-98-106R: Published: Mar 31, 1998. Publicly Released: Apr 1, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the costs to operate the Forest Service's Alaska Region, focusing on: (1) the region's allocation of funds for its operating costs for fiscal years (FY) 1993 through 1997 and estimated allocations for FY 1998; (2) the nature, purpose, and allocation of centralized field costs and examples of which costs caused the centralized field costs to fluctuate from year to year as well as the steps the Alaska Region is taking to comply with the limitation on the expenditures for the Alaska regional office and centralized field costs set forth in the Forest Service's FY 1998 appropriations act; (3) the rationale for the distribution of regional reserve funds; and (4) whether the appropriations for the National Forest System and for Forest and Rangeland Research were used appropriately to pay for work performed by the Pacific Northwest Research Station in connection with the revision of the Tongass Land Management Plan and for post-plan studies.

GAO noted that: (1) the Alaska Region's operating costs ranged from $108 million to $127 million annually during FY 1993 through 1997; (2) the region allocated from 71 percent to 76 percent of these funds to the field offices for carrying out local programs; (3) until FY 1998, the Alaska Region used a category of operating costs, known as centralized field costs, as a means of improving efficiency by having one office manage certain programs or activities for the benefit of multiple offices; (4) the centralized field costs established by the region increased from about $5 million in FY 1993 to almost $9 million in FY 1997, and the number of programs or activities included in these costs fluctuated from 24 to 41 during the same period; (5) the types and amounts of individual programs or activities within the total varied greatly as new efforts were undertaken or enhanced and others were completed or eliminated; (6) some centralized field costs, such as the National Finance Center's costs, were listed annually, but others were 1-year initiatives; (7) the FY 1998 appropriations act limited the Alaska regional office's expenditures for regional office operations and centralized field costs to $17.5 million, unless Congress was given 60 days prior notice; (8) to comply with this legislative requirement, the Alaska Region eliminated the use of the centralized field cost category, included unallocated funds in regional reserve accounts until distribution requirements are determined, and separated the costs for the operations of the State and Private Forestry unit from those for the regional office; (9) the Alaska Region establishes reserves because of the uncertainty about the timing or the amount of funds needed for certain projects; (10) in FY 1995 through 1997, the Alaska Region distributed reserves ranging from $6 million to $12 million; (11) beginning in FY 1995, both the Alaska Region's portion of the National Forest System appropriation and the Pacific Northwest Research Station's portion of the research appropriation funded the work performed by the Research Station scientists on the revision of the Tongass Land Management Plan and post-plan studies; (12) although GAO asked for information on the rationale for decisions about the funding split for the particular work performed by the research scientists, neither the Alaska Regional Office nor the Research Station provided GAO with adequate explanations or documentation; and (13) as a result, GAO could not determine whether the National Forest System and the research appropriations were used appropriately or inappropriately for FY 1995 through 1998.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Forest Service has implemented the recommendation. The Forest Service's Alaska Regional Forester and Pacific Northwest Research Station Director have developed a benefits analysis process wherein special funding situations are evaluated for their relative benefits to the Alaska Region and the Research Station, which will accomplish the intent of the Forest Service's August 28, 1997, direction on special Research funding situations. On July 30, 1998, the Deputy Chief for Research and Development directed all research stations to implement the new procedures and stressed that they must abide by appropriation law, and the rules that govern it.

    Recommendation: The Chief of the Forest Service should direct the Alaska Regional Forester and the Pacific Northwest Research Station Director to fully comply with the Forest Service's August 28, 1997, direction on special research funding situations, which requires the preparation of financial plans and documentation of the determination of the appropriate funding allocations, and establish procedures to ensure compliance with appropriations law Forest Service-wide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture: Forest Service

 

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