Washington, DC — Even as the overall budget for the U.S. Forest Service has grown this year, its law enforcement program is hobbled by a budget reduction of roughly 15% from last’s year’s levels, according to documents posted today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Thus far, the shortfall has resulted in orders for “office days” taking officers off patrol, mileage and shift limits and a hiring freeze as managers wrestle with how to avoid layoffs.
The reason for the shortfall appears to be bureaucratic neglect rather than a hostile Congress. The Forest Service got the precise amount of funds it requested for its Law Enforcement & Investigations (LEI) Division but that amount was lower than the prior year. The impact of this cut was compounded by 1) the fact that, unlike other Forest Service programs, LEI did not have its fire transfer dollars reinstated after last year’s budget-busting fire season and 2) LEI had to absorb the cost of employee raises.
“By asking Congress for less money, it appears that the Forest Service deliberately short-sheeted its own law enforcement program,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that LEI is responsible for protecting natural resources and the visiting public in 44 states across 193 million acres of forest lands, an area larger than the State of Texas. “Sudden cuts of this magnitude will unquestionably compromise the effectiveness of Forest Service law enforcement.”
The ink was barely dry on this year’s new appropriations package when the size of the shortfall began to become clear, internal emails reveal. Among immediate actions taken within to husband funds, include –
- Taking law enforcement officers out of patrol vehicles and confining them for “office days” in which they are supposed to occupy themselves with paperwork. Officers could still respond to emergency requests for assistance;
- Limiting the number of miles officers can drive and shortening shifts of officers working out in the forests on drug and other stakeouts; and
- Freezing “all LEI hiring nationally… So anything we have vacant today will remain vacant and anything that may become vacant through attrition, will also remain vacant,” per one directive.
Nonetheless, these economy measures are unlikely to close this large funding gap in the short-term. Nor has national leadership emerged on what the overall plan will be, leaving each LEI region to cope on its own. In the meantime, there is confusion on how LEI is supposed to respond to wild-land fires, drug trafficking operations or other incidents that will require greater expenditure of resources or manpower.
“Forest Service law enforcement personnel are left in the untenable position of having to decide whether a request for assistance justifies the cost of gasoline,” Ruch added, pointing out that LEI has aggravated its fiscal plight with a number of ill-considered expensive equipment purchases ranging from military-style hardened laptops, body-mounted cameras and even drones which have never been deployed. “Far more critical than its financial deficit is the Forest Service law enforcement program’s leadership deficit.”