For fiscal year 2019 (FY19), the President’s budget proposes taking an axe to the budget of the U.S. Forest Service, the agency responsible for managing the country’s national forests and timber harvest in those forests. At $4.8 billion, the proposed budget is $851 million, or 15 percent, less than the FY17 enacted level and $36 million less than the FY18 request. The only line items to escape the cuts are for Law Enforcements Operations and Wildland Fire Management. Meanwhile, several programs are cut entirely, including, among others:
- Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration
- Forest Legacy Program
- Legacy Roads and Trails
- Land Acquisition – general account
The next biggest cut is made to the Capital Improvement and Maintenance budget, for which a 74 percent reduction from FY17 levels is proposed.
Among those that get off easy is the Forest Products account that funds the preparation and administration of timber sales. The proposed $341 million is 7 percent less than FY17 and 5 percent less than last year’s budget request. The agency’s plan for Forest Products in FY19 is notable, however, for the significant increase in timber sales it projects, despite the cut in funding. The Forest Service’s budget justification document lists 3.7 billion board feet as the target for timber sales in FY19. That’s 500 million board feet – 16 percent – more than the target for the last three years, and more timber than the Forest Service has sold in any year since 1997. Also, the Forest Service claims its FY18 target was 3.4 billion board feet. According to page 94 of last year’s budget justification, however, the target was 3.2 billion board feet, and it’s unclear why the Forest Service is attempting some revisionist history.
Regardless of how high the timber sales target is, taxpayers should hope the Forest Service falls far short of its goal. As we’ve noted in past years, to the extent the Forest Service continues to fund below-cost timber sales, taxpayers will continue to lose. The size of those losses is hard to calculate because of limited financial data disclosure. But under generous assumptions, the Forest Service spent roughly three times as much to conduct timber sales as they received from them in 2016 and 2017, costing taxpayers more than $300 million per year, on average.